… pre-vintage Shaw …  

Shaw’s early play, The Philanderer of 1893, is a romantic comedy that’s as focused on the ideas of Henrik Ibsen as it is on love, and with good reason:  for Shaw ideas and love were equally suffused with eros.

Shaw saw Ibsen’s A Doll’s House five times around 1893 and this iconic drama was revelatory, bringing him to the possibility of a theater of ideas.  And, with his comic bent, and awareness of the pitfalls of stern moralizing, Shaw sought a humorous way to explore Ibsen’s theme of the independent woman.  This led him in The Philanderer to comic exaggerations which today to me seem dated, though when the play was first produced, they may have seemed fresh and provocative.  As a gauge of that, the Pearl’s program tells us that  “…due to strict censorship … it was not performed on the stage until 1902.”

In a romantic triangle (like one Shaw experienced), Grace Tranfield, a down-to-earth widow and Julia Craven, volatile and erotically assertive, both love Leonard Charteris, an attractive curmudgeon, who’s just broken off from the over-possessive Julia and is now courting Grace.  During some romancing at Grace’s house, Julia bursts in, claiming Leonard really belongs to her.  Shaw, alluding to Ibsen’s “advanced” ideas about independent women, has fun with the jealous Julia – how can a woman who calls herself independent speak of one person “belonging” to another?

Julia keeps up her boisterous scene even when Grace’s proper father, Colonel Craven, arrives, along with his long lost friend who happens to be Julia’s father.  How fascinating that Shaw describes a similar romantic rivalry and late night scene in his diary in early 1893! An exhausted Leonard (just like a “horribly tired and shocked and upset” Shaw) finally gets Julia out of there with a romantic lie, sober Grace having long ago retreated upstairs.

The play continues at to the “Ibsen Club”, where a stern portrait of Ibsen dominates the Library, and where Ibsen’s ideas about independent women are carried to the point of caricature.  Women are allowed in this London club, an innovation, but to be members they must be “unwomanly women.”  Julia’s younger sister, Sylvia, fills the bill in a pants role.  But how Julia can manage to stay in the Club, in spite of her “womanly” amorousness and sexy clothes, is the set-up for some humor.

The conflict between Julia and Grace over Leonard (because it’s wearing thin it seems to me) is joined by stuffy Dr. Percy Paramore’s unrequited love for Julia, who despairs even more when the news comes in that his gruesome scientific experiments are proven to be useless (anticipating Shaw’s later The Doctor’s Dilemma).  As in Moliere’s The Misanthrope , which the sexual dynamics in The Philanderer much resemble, the undercurrent of true sexual attraction between the flirt and the curmudgeon, here Leonard and Julia, retains its ambiguity and the romance is left unresolved.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see The Philanderer and I appreciate the The Pearl for putting in on.  The production is straightforward and so adequate for introducing one to the play, but it’s uninspired.  Of the central threesome, Bradford Cover is strong and charming as the rumpled Leonard.  Karron Graves plays the amorously determined Julia with the vivacity the part calls for though, at the heights of emotion, her voice gives way to a kind of shrieking in her all out performance .  Rachel Botchan could have used some of Graves’ energy — a fine performer in other roles I’ve seen, she played Grace with a dull placidity that makes one wonder what Leonard could possibly see in her.

The Pearl used to be in a proscenium theater but now plays in a theater with seating on three sides, yet continues to stage plays fully to the front as in the old theater:  more flexibility and variety of movement would be interesting, and give better site lines to those seated on the side.

The Philanderer holds fewer streaks of the Shavian wit than one hopes for.  But the fact is, when he does construct one of those marvelous, sly build-ups that land you with pleasurable jolt at a great line, and you find yourself laughing heartily, then the play, Shaw, and everything else, for the moment, seem intensely worthwhile.

The Philanderer  plays at NYC’s City Center Theater in mid-town Manhattan through February 19, 2012.

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