Man and Superman is a totally delightful evening of theater that lifts you from yourself with enjoyment and — thinking about it after — reminds you of what theater is all about. It couldn’t be better. It’s a romantic comedy as well as a play of ideas that spins off from the story of Don Juan, particularly the Don Giovanni of Mozart’s opera, though with a bit of Faust, and Milton’s Satan thrown in. Shaw subtitled it A Comedy and a Philosophy.
With the death of her father, Ann Whitefield, an entrancing and feisty young woman, is placed in the hands of two male guardians (even though, in early 20th-century England, she has a mother) Jack, a young, wealthy, and wittily ironic iconoclast and author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, and the older, stuffy, conventionally minded and reactionary Roebuck Ramsden.
The free thinker Jack and the old guard Ramsden agree on only one thing: that Ann should marry Octavius who adores her. But she only toys with his infatuation, giving him the affectionate but romantically dismissive nickname, Ricky Ticky Tavy. We — and the characters — catch on to a love triangle: Octavius loves Ann who loves Jack AND we can tell that Jack loves Ann, too, but he is so leary of being ensnared in marriage that he doesn’t recognize that he loves her … or at least, he’s the last to admit it.
There’s another pair of lovers, Violet, Octavius’ sister, secretly married to Hector, son of an American millionaire. And there’s Straker, Jack’s car mechanic and chauffeur, representative of the proletariat — who has many of the really great lines, but don’t worry, there are plenty left over for everybody else. This play is a feast of language. No wonder Shaw compared himself to Shakespeare.
The whole crew goes driving in two cars, when cars are still a novelty, from England to Spain, all the way South to Granada. There, dislocated from their home base in England, the imagination opens to new vistas.
On the road, Jack and Tanner are held up for their car by the exotic, mysterious brigand, Mendoza: that night, falling asleep in the wilds of Mendoza’s desert, Jack dreams the great and famous scene of “Don Juan in Hell”. Before our eyes, asleep on the desert floor, Jack rises, dressed in embroidered vest and bandeleras, knee ties and, finally, the plumed hat with the swooping brim of his own distant ancestor, Don Juan. He’s now in hell, and a Faustian Mendoza, dark and dapper, has become in Jack’s dream the Devil in sleek dinner dress. The two argue, words flowing bountifully, the great issues of human existence, relationships between men and women, capitalism and the exploitation of labor, human nature and life on earth, and the question of whether it’s better to spend eternity in heaven or in hell. Like everything in this play drenched with ironic opposites, that’s a surprisingly tricky question.
When Ann, much to her own surprise, arrives in hell, her costume — Gypsy bodice and fluffy white bloomers — is as witty, expressive and eye-filling as Don Juan’s. Ramsden — now the Statue, Ann’s father Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, drops by on a visit from heaven: “I have my share of vanity,” he says, “for as a young man I was admired by women, and as a statue I’m praised by art critics.”
Which then is, actually, the better place to be? Heaven seems boring, and Hell has turned out to be a pleasure palace. No fire and brimstone here, the Devil’s a gentleman for whom “beauty is good to look at … music is good to hear … love is good to feel … and they are all good to think about and talk about.” But, Don Juan retorts, “Here there is nothing but love and beauty. Ugh!”
Don Juan is a reformer, a prophet burdened by the evils and injustices of the world and seized by a purpose beyond himself — to improve the world. As a Philosophic man, he seeks heaven where he can contemplate the Life Force and affect things for the better. How is not clear but one thing’s for sure: “The philosopher is Nature’s pilot,” he says … “ to be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.”
To which the Devil plays a really top card in the deck — the freedom card: “I prefer to be my own master and not the tool of any blundering universal force.”
Women seek improvement in their biologically driven way, through propagation that may lead to a superman: thus they are central to the Life Force and Ann, as things turn out, is no exception. Watch out, Jack.
It’s hard to remember a play so perfectly cast as this one. The acting is universally superb. Max Gordon Moore plays Jack with manly strength combined with scampish vigor of a stand-up comic that fully expresses his iconoclastic take on absolutely everything. Janie Brookshire is tough and charming as the Life Force at work.
Jonathan Hammond is irresistible as the seductive Mendoza, a cynical realist except that romantic love drives this worldly sophisticate to write dreadful poetry.
As Octavius, Will Bradley stops at exactly the right place short of camp in expressing his idealizing romantic love, not man enough for Anne but man enough to carry an eternally broken heart.
Brian Murray fascinates as the rigid but not heartless Ramsden, dense but not a fool; one believes everything this wonderful actor does and at one and the same time marvels at how he does it.
Laurie Kennedy as Mrs. Whitefield, Paul O’Brien as Malone, Margaret Loesser Robinson as Violet, Brian Sgambati as Straker, and Zachary Spicer as Hector are all amusing, touching, and true to their parts. That these highly individualized characters work together so well as an ensemble is surely due to the vision of the Director, David Staller.
So who wins the heaven vs. hell argument between Don Juan and the Devil? As the Devil says, “… men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell … ” But you won’t get tired of this play! Man and Superman takes ones breath away with its succinct and knowing brilliance, and with the magic of that other world that Jack discovers when he dreams his dream.
Man and Superman plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through June 17, 2012 EXTENDED through July 1st!