Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: George Bernard Shaw

Review | A Minister’s Wife | A Musical Theater Version of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida | Book by Austin Pendleton | Music by Joshua Schmidt | Lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen | Conceived and Directed by Michael Halberstam | Lincoln Center

A big problem for A Minister’s Wife is that, unlike most of Shaw’s plays, Candida is in my view — though others disagree — dated.  It has to do with a woman determining her own fate but the ideas circulating about relationships between men and women, marriage and love, are archaic — and there’s barely a spoonful of Shavian wit.  These problems were evident in the recent production of Candida  by the Irish Repertory Theater , and setting some speeches to music, as in A Minister’s Wife, doesn’t make them go away.

The situation is a love triangle among Candida, her husband the Reverend James Morell, and Marchbanks, a teen-aged poet and household hanger-on.  Candida, who has a good figure and a great head of hair, arrives home from somewhere for a day’s stay.  Morell has been so intensely involved in composing one of his passionate socialist sermons that — much as he adores her — he misses picking her up at the train.  That’s one of Morell’s weaknesses as a husband — he’s too involved in his work.  Oh Oh.

Marchbanks, the boyish, dreamy, idealistic poet who’s in love with Candida seizes the opportunity to woo her with a combination of his own poetic soul and his understanding of her inner woman’s nature, a flirtation Candida enters into in her home and under the eyes of her husband who, understandably, grows angry and, ultimately frightened.

A Minister’s Wife starts auspiciously.  The set, the Morell’s living room/office, is an appealing blend of refinement, education and lived-in wear:  it conveys the Minister’s seriousness of purpose.  Early on, Morell sings, more a recitative than a song but very effective in making real for the audience his powerful sermons — and the Shavian language is up to the idea.  Marc Kudisch’s rich baritone and good looks convey believably and pleasurably his often referred to charisma.

That’s the best use of music in The Minister’s Wife.   After that, the music is one note per word, plain up and down the scale repetitive to the point of being irritating, and the “songs” never take flight from the mode of recitative.

And who can take the allure Candida finds in Marchbanks seriously?  For one thing, Marchbanks, played by Bobby Steggert, is fifteen years younger than Candida.  And Morell is a mature, powerfully attractive man to whom his Secretary, everyone who hears his sermons, and Candida herself is attracted.  And although the dialog indicates that Marchbanks has a poetic soul, we never hear him say anything of particular poignancy nor hear any powerful poetry from him — mainly he flirts, speaks disrespectfully to Morell (who has rescued him in from a park bench) and, in between times, languishes.

Candida’s flirtation with Marchbanks, and her density and/or callousness (Shaw can’t seem to decide which) about her husband’s feelings, make her seem silly and small, draining her significance.  Kate Fry as Candida has a pleasant voice but doesn’t bring a dramatic presence to the role that might help us overlook its weaknesses.

When Liz Bates has center stage, she brings the play temporarily to life with her vitality and wit as Morell’s Secretary, “Prossy,” tough-minded but filled with yearning, aided in her moment of liberation by Morell’s Curate, played by Drew Gehling.

The Morell’s children are briefly mentioned but — on the one day their mother comes home — they never appear.  What an error!  They may have been in his narrative way — as children often are — but Shaw should have figured out something better than leaving them out, all the more in a play about who protects whom in a marriage.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House of 1879 never seems dated, but Candida of 1898, Shaw’s answer to A Doll’s House, does.  Candida is spirited, but not independent-minded, unlike Nora as her personality emerges in A Doll’s House.   In A Minister’s Wife, as in Candida, it all comes down to a very simplified view of who protects whom in a marriage.  I find particularly irksome that the resolution of the story — in the play and musical version — infantilizes the mature Morell;  to me, this comes across as one of Shaw’s peevish complaints about women, masked as a “modern” story of women and independence.

A Minister’s Wife  plays at the Mitzi E Newhouse theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater.

Review | Candida by George Bernard Shaw | Directed and Designed by Tony Walton | Irish Repertory Theatre

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.

Review | Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw | Directed by Jeff Steiter | Pearl Theatre Company

.. an update on Hypatia …

What a lark!  What delicious wit!  What a pleasure to see the Pearl’s production of Shaw’s Misalliance!  It would be hard to have a better time.
All the events of Misalliancetake place one summer day in the conservatory of the Tarletons’ English country mansion.  John Tarleton has made a fortune in underwear, “rags-to-riches” you might say, yet in this play written in 1909 one of his guests is a British Lord, along with the Lord’s son who wants to marry Tarleton’s daughter, Hypatia.  Thus one of the themes of the play is about the new melding among the classes in England, as the upper class gets poorer and the upper middle class gets richer and buys them out.

The name, Hypatia, is a clue to another theme, women’s struggle for independence and the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities in the world at large — to have a career.  Hypatia is a feminist exemplar from the ancient world, a philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, inventory, administrator and lecturer in Alexandria, Egypt, tragically murdered as a heretic and for not knowing her place as a woman.  We find out quickly Hypatia Tarleton is longing for some unformulated adventure to fall from the sky and free her from her penned-in existence.  Unlike the earlier Hypatia, though, she doesn’t dress mannishly like a scholar:  she’s delicate, pretty, and aware of her feminine allure so romance — as well as ideas — are in the air.  She selects her husband — not the other way around — so in that, at least, she’s one of Shaw’s “new women.”

And who has named her “Hypatia,” her father, of course, who can’t help making money but is also a great reader, drenched in the world of ideas, and ready to suggest at the drop of a hat which author you’d best read to solve whatever your current dilemma might be … until in a critical moment in his own life it occurs to him what he should read, in one of the most amusing lines in all theater.  To think of how Shaw leads up to that moment is thrilling!  John Tarleton, big, blustering, rich, sensuous, realistic and idealistic is a great character, and holds the play together — one doesn’t want to lose him, and Dan Daily plays the part to a T.  The moment the play was over I wanted to see it again — to spend more time with John Tarleton, and see what author to fit what life issue he would come up with next.

The physically weak but brainy aristocrat’s son, Bentley Summerhays, is played off against the no nonsense, fist ready Johnny Tarleton … but Johnny has his sensitivities, too.  No character is two-dimensional.  Of the women, Mrs. Tarleton comes closest to seeming like an old-fashioned, nurturing, well-domesticized wife but she goes along with that radical new idea — an open marriage!  The advent of three newcomers — two of whom actually do fall from the sky in what is surely the first plan crash in theater sets the plot in motion.  Joey Percival and Lina Szczepanowska (what fun Shaw — and the characters — have with pronouncing that name) bring various and inventive new love interest, Lina an archetypal tough career women in boots with a sexy Eastern European accent.   The Man who enters this garden of earthly delights near the end of Act I, the product of one of John Tarleton’s flings with the women in his factory, does his part as the representative of the embittered lower classes, but he’s tenderly co-opted by Mrs. Tarleton, for all his anarchist fury.  In Misalliance, the manufacturing Middle Class is winner-take-all.

The play has a few loose ends but why complain in the face of Shaw’s wonderful stream of characters and wit … or was I co-opted by wit?  I don’t care — it’s a total delight!

Misalliance plays at City Center’s Theater 2, in midtown Manhattan, through January 24th.

Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jeff Steiter, the Pearl Theatre Company

L-R:  Dan Daily (John Tarleton), Lee Stark (Hypatia Tarleton), and Sean McNall (The Man). Photo by Sam Hough

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