George Bernard Shaw — a natural provocateur who constantly was gnawing over his level of comfort with the demands of the public — divided the published collections of his early dramatic works into volumes titled "Plays Unpleasant," "Plays Pleasant" and "Three Plays for Puritans." "You Never Can Tell," the 1899 comedy now in rare production by the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, falls squarely into the middle volume. This is indeed a pleasant, even a mock-farcical, piece, both akin to and a response to Oscar Wilde's roughly contemporaneous "The Importance of Being Earnest." Alas, when it came to merely trivial comedies, Wilde has his fellow Irishman well and truly on the ropes. Shaw was too stubbornly intellectual, too determined a societal player, for sparkling witticisms on a par with the utterings of Lady Bracknell.
"You Never Can Tell" follows a strong, feminist author named Mrs. Clandon (Elaine Rivkin) who departed Jolly Old England for Madeira 18 years earlier, escaping a boorish, oppressive husband named Crampton (the gruff Doug Hendel). She now has returned to its shores with her three adult children: the foppish Philip (Alex Weisman), the irreverent Dorothy (C. Jaye Miller) and Gloria (Eliza Stoughton), the ripe adult and New Woman of this family
In a coincidence that Shaw clearly intended as a parody of such pervasive dramatic coincidences, the returned exiles find themselves at the seaside dentist — where the puller of molars, one Valentine (Greg Matthew Anderson), is quite the rake. He is, alas for him, an impecunious rake, which puts him at the mercy of his landlord who is — whaddaya know? — the father that these kids have never known.
Things go from there, with a particularly important waiter (the legendary Dale Benson) on hand to dispense various nuggets of authorial wisdom as the play reaches its climax.
This is not, for sure, a Shavian work on a par with, say, "Mrs. Warren's Profession" or "Pygmalion," although it has its rich satirical moments and benefits from its relative lack of exposure (there has not been a professional Chicago production in decades). By programming it in the slot it generally has reserved for semi-seasonal farces, Remy Bumppo is playing up its diversionary amusements. "As funny as 'Earnest,'" claims the promotional materials, which just ain't so. For Shaw was always Shaw. Opining at length. Frankly, he was on surer footing when he wasn't trying to sublimate his wisdom in service of a Haymarket farce.
Still, there are some savvy and caustic observations here, especially on the interwoven relationship of love, sex, families and money. I'm all for a play that makes fun of dentists (even though I have a very nice one to take my money). And there is a good deal to like (especially for Shaw fanatics) in Shawn Douglass' mostly solid production, which is enriched by lovely costume design from Emily Waecker and makes a partial, if not a full, case for the worth of this play. The show is highlighted by a pair of very amusing performances from Weisman, who is nicely controlled but well-defined — rather in the style of a young Nathan Lane — and Miller, a very talented newcomer who has this deliciously fresh habit of just throwing herself into every moment with a palpable abandon.
Anderson is amusing and erudite, too, although he doesn't fully capture the raw, sensual drive of his rakish character — one of literature's many sexually aggressive dentists. And, problematically, he doesn't fully seem like a match for Stoughton's very serious and rather asexual Gloria, who does seem enough like her progressive mother's feisty daughter. Anderson just doesn't push (or maybe that should be pull) hard enough to really drive the action. One does not fully believe the scenes of Shavian passion, leavened as they are with Shavian materialism and complexity.
"You Never Can Tell," which was written in four acts but here plays in two, also needs a faster pace than it gets, especially in the second of the two acts, which has some real sagging therein, partly due to the paucity of one's investments in the characters. (Weisman and Miller are quite lovable, but their characters are trivial, and it's their overly gruff and spluttering elders who need to sharpen their delivery.) The timing of the bons mots is, of course, crucial; a few of the many pauses here very badly need to go away.
For unless the action is racing along, Shaw at his most pleasant is not so removed from Shaw at his most smug.
When: Through Jan. 6
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes