The Irish Rep’s revival of Shaw’s “Candida” is best when it’s least serious. When Ciaran O’Reilly’s fire-and-brimstone preacher is arguing with Sam Underwood’s impassioned poet, the play feels dated and ham-handed. But in the show’s supporting roles, thesps Josh Grisetti, Xanthe Elbrick and Brian Murray bring their meager sections of the script to warm, funny life until the play’s central storyline extinguishes them. Less general direction from helmer Tony Walton might have helped, but against recent revivals like the Pearl’s “Misalliance,” “Candida” feels like a minor curiosity.
Candida (Melissa Errico) is more of a MacGuffin than a woman — her husband James Morrell (Ciaran O’Reilly, who directed “The Emperor Jones” here last year) can’t live without her and has become complacent as a result of her indulgence. Eugene Marchbanks (Sam Underwood), the homeless poet Candida and James have taken in, has decided he’s in love with her and Morrell isn’t worthy of her.
It’s unclear why Morrell doesn’t swat Marchbanks on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper as soon as the younger man starts professing his love for Morrell’s wife. Shaw intends, apparently, for us to think that Morrell’s confidence in his marriage is easily undermined and a result of his own immaturity.
But it’s just hard to take Underwood seriously as the gallant challenger — he doesn’t seem “shy,” as he’s described, merely petulant and childish. His callowness and social anxiety mostly manifest themselves through whining.
Errico brings so much depth and common sense to her much-desired character that one never questions why all the fuss is being made about her. What’s less obvious is why she would deign to spend time with either man in the first place. Shaw tells us it’s because she wants someone to nurture, which sounds a little queasy to modern ears.
Murray, as Candida’s father Mr. Burgess, gets plenty of mileage out of the self-made man’s discomfort with the high-born Marchbanks and with Morrell’s mouthy secretary, Miss Garnett (Elbrick), who doesn’t know her place. Grisetti’s too-short turn as Morrell’s feckless assistant does the play a world of good.
But just as Walton doesn’t stop the very funny Elbrick from occasionally going overboard, nor does he give much guidance to O’Reilly or Underwood. By the end of the play they resemble two toddlers fighting over the keys to the Ferarri.
Tech aspects are all top-notch, particularly Walton’s own beautiful drawing-room set. Accents are spotty at best.