I love Shaw and the Irish Repertory Theatre does plays wonderfully so I was keenly looking forward to Candida. It turned out to be very dull.  Why?  The play or the production?

The Play: The time is 1894.  Candida is a married woman at the apex of a love triangle.  Marchbanks, a near-to-vagabond young poet, has romantic visions of the world and of their love.  Her husband, Morrell, also a man of words, is a diligent, charismatic minister constantly lecturing to do-good organizations, including Shaw’s Fabian Society.  She loves her husband but is drawn to Marchbanks.  Each man claims that Candida is truly his.  Whose is she?

Marchbanks’ claim to Candida is that he “understands” her in a poetic sense that’s never really clear.  Morrell’s supposedly more pedestrian claim is that he loves her, she agreed to marry him, he is in fact her husband and, furthermore, he protects and provides for her.  But who does Candida believe she belongs to?  The climax of the play is when she places herself on auction, giving each man a chance to make his claim, ultimately demonstrating that she is not his or his — she’s her own person.

We can more or less accept Marchbanks as a young swain in love with an older woman, and Morrell as an upstanding man in the world in love with his own wife, but there are too many inconsistencies and questions around Candida to allow her to come across as a particularly interesting or fully realized character.  She’s just come in from a vacation but claims that the household is short of money, and something’s said about her taking care of children but there are no children in the play.  She does or does not resent having the help the maid peel onions:  which is it?  We’re told that she has nice hair and a good figure but other than that, there’s nothing special about her so we’re left with each of these men being in love with her just because people fall in love.

What does she do all day anyhow beside fluff the pillows, when she’s not mothering Marchbanks, whose poetry doesn’t interest her?  It’s said that Shaw wrote this play in response to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in which, at the end, Nora leaves her husband.  Candida stays with her husband, in some newly defined relationship we are to understand, but we don’t see it in the play.  Some things have been said, e.g., she has in the past been the one to put off the creditors when the family’s short of money while he gets credit for munificence when they pay up.  She runs interference for him.  Are we supposed to think that from now on he’ll face off the creditors?  And that’s a good thing?  She’ll have even less to do in the outside world.

Or does she get to pay the bills?  That’s not much fun.

And what happened to Shavian wit in Candida?  There are a couple of cracks about people liking to hear what ministers tell them to do and then not doing it, and that’s about it.

The Production: The set was predictable, a cluttered, slightly disorderly late 19th Century British middle class household that makes you sneeze just to look at it.  In spite of a distinguished cast, the acting didn’t serve the play.  Perhaps an actress with great style and power — Katharine Cornell played Candida — could have overridden the weaknesses in the characterization, but Melissa Errico ‘s Candida is all on the surface — instead of playing the part, she plays herself playing a type of part she’s done a number of times before.  Ciaran O’Reilly, another highly accomplished actor with an impressive resume, looks and acts scruffy and vague instead of a dynamic minister everyone including Candida falls in love with.  Sam Underwood’s irritating, clickety-clack reading of his lines as Marchbanks makes it impossible to understand Candida’s attraction to him.  Only the smaller parts came alive, and Xanthe Elbrick is particularly humorous and believable as the minister’s typist.

Candida is sometimes said to be more human and psychological than Shaw’s more “talky” plays of ideas.  If so, I say bring back the talky ones!  Like the hilarious and totally enjoyable Misalliance at the Pearl Theatre, reviewed here in December.

Candida plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in NYC’s Chelsea through April 18.

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