LA JOLLA — UC San Diego has done something unusual with George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance," playing at the Mandell Weiss Center through Saturday. It has mixed black and white actors in this 1910 drawing-room comedy, and even cast a black actress as the mother of two white children.
The theater department is to be congratulated for its boldness. But boldness alone does not make a show. Unfortunately, the production sinks under the weight of some serious miscasting of actors from both races.
It doesn't help that, although the play is witty, it isn't one of Shaw's finest.
The focus of the play is the mismatch of Hypatia Tarleton, a young woman from a wealthy business family, and Bentley Summerhays, a young man from a wealthy noble family. Bentley is such a fop that everybody is against this marriage, even, after a few lukewarm defenses, the bride-to-be.
The subtitle of the show is "A Debate in One Sitting" (although there is a 15-minute intermission) and Shaw uses his characters to argue the merits and meaning of marriage.
Their positions, which may have seemed risque in Shaw's time, come off rather predictably.
Hypatia's mother believes in the romance of marriage. Hypatia's father does, too, but that doesn't stop him from indulging in a steady flow of recreational affairs.
To complicate the discussion, a plane crashes through the Tarletons' window, bringing with it Joey Percival, a school chum of Bentley's, who wins Hypatia's heart but only wants to marry her if her father will contribute handsomely to their income. Percival's passenger is Lina Szczepanowska, an acrobat who has such feminist pride in her independence that she is ready to leave the Tarleton house in a fury when Hypatia's brother, Johnny, does her the insult of proposing.
Each of Hypatia's suitors strains credulity. Eugene Nesmith is stiff and uncomfortable in what should be the supremely self-confident role of Joey. Even his British accent is disconcertingly shaky.
Brad Cottrill plays Bentley not just as a wimp, but in the mincing and flamboyant mannerisms of a drag queen. That's not to say that he isn't very funny at times, but, like Nesmith, he seems to have walked into the wrong play.
Veronica Henson-Phillips has some nice moments as Mrs. Tarleton but fails to give her the needed combination of dizziness and force. She is also hurt by a lack of chemistry between herself and Randy Braunberger as Mr. Tarleton. It is hard to believe that there was ever any passion between them.
Even with these strikes against him, Robert Robinson's energetic direction manages to deliver several choice nuggets, chiefly from the remaining actors.
Braunberger's energy rises when he isn't interacting with Henson-Phillips. He displays a winning comedic flair as the father whose solution to people's problems is to recommend that they read great authors, from Shakespeare to "what's-his-name who wrote 'Man and Superman.' "
Maria Louise Porter is a strong and commanding Lina Szczepanowska. She's got a mouthful of dogma to deliver, but she does it with style. Julie Briskman seems to get a kick out of Hypatia, playing her as a high-spirited girl bent on making trouble.
Shishir Kurup shines in the small role of a timid clerk who hides with a gun in the Tarletons' Turkish bath, seeking revenge for an old slight.
But the star that overpowers them all is the luxurious set by Victoria Petrovich. Most of the action takes place in an opulently decorated glass-enclosed conservatory, complete with busts of Shakespeare and Shaw. The attention to detail extends to the exits. One door leads to a flowering courtyard with a stone fence and iron gate; another exit is a hall from which can be seen additional well-furnished rooms.
Randa Rai Slack's lighting enhances the effect by capturing the beauty of the changes in the day. David Leyton's sound completes the country feel with occasional trilling birds and barking dogs. The sound of the approaching plane chills as it builds, and when the plane crashes into the window, the visual and auditory effect is stunning.
Most of the costumes by Suzanne Cranfill are a pleasure, with the exception of Hypatia's and Mrs. Tarleton's outfits, both of which are hopelessly pedestrian. These, however, are the only drab physical notes on the stage. This luscious setting deserves to outlast its play.
"MISALLIANCE" By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Robert Robinson. Set by Victoria Petrovich. Costumes by Suzanne Cranfill. Lighting by Randa Rai Slack. Sound by David Leyton. With Peter Carlton Brown, Brad Cottrill, Julie Briskman, Veronica Henson-Phillips, Tom Santos, Randy Braunberger, Eugene Nesmith, Maria Louise Porter and Shishir Kurup. At 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturdsay, 7 p.m. Sunday. Closes March 14. At the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla.