An agile gadfly and professional iconoclast, George Bernard Shaw combined pith and pedantry to contrive plays glistening with profound social issues of class, gender and sexual politics. Always wordy and philosophically circuitous, even Shaw's very best works can prove thorny thickets of verbiage for the uninspired practitioner.
"You Never Can Tell" is certainly not one of Shaw's better plays, which may explain why it is so infrequently produced. Although it is hardly deathless drama, it is certainly facile enough to qualify as a pleasant entertainment. Unfortunately, in her current staging at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, director Heidi Helen Davis enters the thicket with a dulled machete.
Among the badly scratched, Ellen Geer seems strangely shaky as Mrs. Clandon, the thoroughly modern scribe of such radical works as "20th Century Women." Mrs. Clandon fled a disastrous marriage 18 years ago but has now returned to England with her three children, who are pestering her to reveal the long-kept secret of their father's identity. A woman of sense rather than sensibility, Mrs. Clandon has raised her eldest child, Gloria (Willow Geer), to be a cerebral automaton, impervious to the charms of the opposite sex.
But icy Gloria is unexpectedly thawed by the improvident Valentine (Jeff Wiesen), a five-shilling dentist whose ardent wooing undoes Gloria's early indoctrination. Coincidentally, Valentine's wealthy landlord, Mr. Crampton (William Dennis Hunt), happens to be Mrs. Clandon's estranged husband. When the deeply conservative and emotionally volatile Crampton reunites with Gloria and his two rattle-brained younger children, Dolly (Jamie Snow) and Phillip (Michael James Thatcher), he makes a belated bid for his paternal rights, setting the stage for a heated showdown with his liberated missus.
Shaw's "modern" female prototypes may seem quaint by present-day standards, but his sheer, epigrammatic glibness could be surprisingly durable, given careful handling. Yet this production's problems are evident from the outset, from Erica Frank's pedestrian costumes, which never sufficiently limn the eccentricities of the characters, to the claustrophobic set, which is too stuffy and insular for this seaside setting.
Most problematic, certain performers seem out of their depths in Shaw's shallows. Bubbly and impulsive, Dolly and Phillip should persistently interrupt one another in a propulsive rush of dialogue. Here, you can practically feel Snow and Thatcher waiting for their cues. Again and again, Davis emphasizes belabored broadness over subtle wit. Droll Willow Geer is a notable exception, as is Steven Matt as a deceptively obsequious waiter, whose acceptance of the eccentricities and foibles of his "betters" is as wise as it is wry. And the always excellent Hunt anchors the wobbly proceedings with welcome and unshakable dignity.
'You Never Can Tell'
Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga
When: See www.theatricum.com for schedule
Ends: Oct. 1
Price: $15 to $25
Contact: (310) 455-3723.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes