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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
At South Coast Repertory, where veteran GBS director Martin Benson is helming a glorious, if longish revival, the orators and actors populate the same stage, never risking a collision course. Except, that is, until an errant plane crashes into the greenhouse. Benson clearly loves Shaw's comic characters as deeply as the stuffed shirts. Those who can be overstuffed and hilarious simultaneously are especially golden.
Stopping or passing through the manor are a dandified aristocrat who describes himself as "an afterthought;" his patrician father, an underwear magnate; his desperately bored daughter; an interloping pilot and his circus-y flight companion. Oh, and a gunman with a grudge. They all end up wandering through the open and brightly lit sitting room of John Tarleton which has been designed by set designer Ralph Funicello. For Shaw, SCR's production values are never less than impeccable. They look smashing.
This collection of players is a recipe for the play of rich Shavian dialog —and for mayhem. Hypatia Tarleton (played by Melanie Lora), is so anxious for something, anything, to happen that she's willing to affiance herself to the insufferable Bentley Summerhays (Wyatt Fenner)— if only because such an act will push life forward. That other, even less appropriate people, tend to fall in love with Hypatia doesn't seem to help matters. The lady wants chaos, and will create her own if she has to. It turns out she doesn't have to, as chaos literally falls out of the sky.
When the aforementioned stray airplane lands in the Tarleton greenhouse and a dashing &mdash if rule-abiding&mdash pilot (Peter Katona) emerges unscathed from the wreckage, Hypatia can barely contain her glee. When it turns out that the pilot's companion is the Polish circus artist Lina Szczepanowska (Kirsten Potter), the men can hardly contain theirs. This is particularly so with Hypatia's book loving father John Tarleton (Dakin Matthews) whose over-supply of words are, for once in his life, insufficient for the occasion. (The attempt by all assembled to collectively pronounce "Szczepanowska" makes for great comedy.)
Characters talk a lot in this play. When they don't talk, they push convention, gently misbehave or think about misbehaving. They struggle against their better nature, not against circumstance.
Shaw introduces no agents of discord. Yes, the Pilot and Ms. Szczepanowska shake things up a bit, but they're supposed to. Fate, would have it so. There isn't a character approaching a villain. Even Julius Baker the gunman (played by JD Cullum) is a character of levity, hiding in Tarleton's Turkish bath and fumbling comically with his weapon as he threatens the lord of he manor.
Bentley Summerhays is gnat-like, a crybaby and richly deserves the thrashing he receives at the hands of Hypatia's brother John Jr. (Daniel Bess). Fenner plays him fey and prissy, making Bentley a character who has wandered in out of an Oscar Wilde play (possibly en route to a P.G. Wodehouse soiree.) Shaw doesn't seem to love this character overmuch (he disappears, and we know from the get-go that Hypatia is destined for better things), but director Benson does. Even poor scorned Bentley will come around.
And it is very hard, nay near impossible, as southland audiences have long known, to keep a presence like Dakin Matthews. Whether he's King Lear at Antaeus (a coup last summer) or Misalliance's bombastically charismatic underwear magnate John Tarleton, Matthews is something of an energy magnet, working great parts for all they're worth and grabbing our attention whenever he takes the stage. So, certainly, is his Tarleton, the father of children he doesn't entirely understand, the husband of a wife he venerates but dismisses—, a man ever in the midst (even at an advanced age) of self-discovery. "Read Chesterton" is Tarleton's favorite instruction, quickie book knowledge ever at hand. "Read Ibsen. Read what's his name." Where Lear railed, his Tarleton orates. Eloquently and comically.
Lora and Potter buoy the play's romance — the former a romantic risk-taker perpetually in motion; the latter a watcher who simply can't understand what the heck everybody is getting so excited about. We, as audience, certainly see Lina Szczepanowska's point that all this misallied friskiness is exhausting. From where we sit, however, watching it all play out in the hands of such a skilled director and ensemble, how could we wish it any other way?