"You Never Can Tell"?
Pshaw--of course you can. "You Never Can Tell" is early Shaw (1897), and it has been mounted at South Coast Repertory. With that kind of pedigree, it almost goes without saying that it will be impeccably staged, in the tradition of the award-winning "Misalliance" (1987).
The play itself is not exactly unpredictable, either. It's hardly violating a trust to say that the two young people who are attracted to each other will score debating points at the other's expense but will wind up in each other's arms. Nor is it surprising that the women in this play are tougher than their mates, nor that the Life Force can overcome the most reasoned arguments and the stuffiest demeanors.
Finally, it's no news flash that all of this adds up to a lot of devilish fun.
Excerpts from an essay by Margery M. Morgan, reprinted in the South Coast newsletter, point out that "You Never Can Tell" was quasi-autobiographical. Yet it is so unlike the early quasi-autobiographical scribblings of most fledgling playwrights. Shaw appraised all of his characters judiciously, without a trace of rancor. Despite the snappy comebacks and bursts of temper that dot the dialogue, it remains a gentle play.
Furthermore, it lacks the philosophical tirades that crop up in Shaw's later work. There isn't an ounce of preachiness here. As a result, the play can seem as lightweight as the magnificently fluffy clouds that Cliff Faulkner designed for this production--and it is lighter than, say, "Misalliance."
But it's hardly a vacuum. Moments of genuine human feeling peer up through its surface.
At the heart of the story is the 18-year-old breakup of a family. The father, Fergus Crampton (John-David Keller) is, as his name implies, a grouch, and apparently he used to be something worse. Whatever he did back then, his wife (Sally Kemp) took the three children, a new name (Mrs. Clandon) and her self-respect and fled to Madeira, where she has become famous for writing thoroughly modern tomes on the coming century.
Her oldest child, the very grown-up Gloria (Sally Spencer) hopes to become the role model for 20th-Century women that her mother has prescribed. But the two younger kids (Jennifer Flackett and Daniel Bright), technically almost grown, remain carefree imps who make fun of their mother's fondest aspirations.
When the family returns to England, a chance visit to the young dentist Valentine (Tom Harrison) results in a reunion with choleric old Dad, who happens to be Valentine's landlord. It also results in a rush of romance between Valentine and Gloria.
Old man Crampton is initially horrified by his brood, but paternal feelings brew in the strangest places, and soon he's threatening to sue for custody of the younger children. This doesn't seem particularly likely, but Shaw wrote around it and other improbabilities with his usual skill.
The dispute is mediated by a couple of solicitors (Don Took and John-Frederick Jones) and the grandly beneficent waiter (I. M. Hobson) at the seaside resort where it all takes place. Meanwhile, everyone takes a turn at advancing or trying to stop the apparent misalliance between Valentine, the penniless dentist, and Gloria, the dignified feminist.
The performances glitter. Inducing the most giggles is that comic peanut gallery of Flackett and Bright; costumer Shigeru Yaji really outdid himself with Bright's big green cravat over a white dandy outfit.
Some of the other nominally subsidiary performances are among the showiest. After merely four roles at South Coast, Hobson's eyebrows should be enshrined in the lobby. And Jones' one scene is a comic blitzkrieg.
But it's the twinkle in the eye of Harrison, the solemn gravity of Kemp and Spencer and the first-act crabbiness of Keller that really holds the production together. Plus, of course, the authoritative directing by David Emmes.
The staging of a first-act luncheon is especially well-done. Keller carves away at his food while everyone else offers a toast. Took tries earnestly to transcend his revulsion at the younger generation seated next to him. Hobson, whom no one would ever confuse with a ballet dancer, moves around the table with exquisite grace, a platonic ideal of the perfect waiter.
Besides those aforementioned clouds, Faulkner's set includes a lovely seaside solarium that doubles as a dentist's office and then converts into a hotel terrace and a fashionable sitting room. Peter Maradudin's lighting design keeps the stage soaked in summery hues.
"The whole world is like a feather dancing in the light," says Valentine. This production makes you believe it.
YOU NEVER CAN TELL
George Bernard Shaw's play at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Directed by David Emmes. Sets by Cliff Faulkner, costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Lighting by Peter Maradudin. Music by Joel Kabakov. Choreography by Linda Kostalik-Boussom. With Jennifer Flackett, Tom Harrison, Judy Young, Daniel Bright, Sally Kemp, Sally Spencer, John-David Keller, I. M. Hobson, Don Took, Jim Donovan, John-Frederick Jones. Performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., through April 6. Tickets: $19-$26; (714) 957-4033.