Look! It's a romantic comedy . . . it's a philosophical epic . . . it's "Man and Superman."
George Bernard Shaw's ambitious hybrid can be presented as a mere play, minus the mighty "Don Juan in Hell" dream sequence in Act III. Or it can be staged as the complete Superplay--which has been known to last five hours.
Director Martin Benson, at South Coast Repertory, came up with a compromise: all four acts, including "Don Juan in Hell," edited down to a running time of about 3 hours, 15 minutes.
Benson's version has its shining moments, but it's not up to the usual Shavian standard at South Coast, which has recently assembled impeccable renditions of two of Shaw's more manageable plays, "Misalliance" and "You Never Can Tell."
The production gets most of its desired effects through the first three acts. But with only one intermission, even an abridged "Man and Superman" still requires a long sit, and the strain is felt in the final act.
The romantic comedy plots seem surprisingly trivial and drawn-out by play's end. And the denouement of the main plot--about the triangle between iconoclastic Jack Tanner, wily Ann Whitefield and moony Octavius Robinson--feels oddly conventional (considering the unconventional notions of the playwright) and not particularly convincing.
This feeling of fourth-act unrest may be partially attributable to the switch from the eternal concerns of the "Don Juan" sequence back to the temporal concerns of a few wealthy Victorians. But at South Coast, it's also due to the editing choices that went into effect even in the first act.
Using a script that was reportedly prepared by Amlin Gray for a Berkeley production, this staging eliminates much of a first-act conversation between Jack and Ann, which explores the meaning of their mutual childhood experiences. This conversation is not just another example of entertaining repartee; it's an essential prelude to understanding Jack's and Ann's obsession with each other and the inevitability of their final embrace.
There are a few other omitted lines that would add depth to this production. Of course they also would add length--which might be more tolerable if the romantic comedy that surrounds "Don Juan" felt more substantive, or if the performance were broken into two events that could run in repertory.
If the show must be presented in one night and further cuts are deemed necessary, the subplot about Octavius' resolute sister and her secret American husband could be more severely trimmed.
One problem with trying to present the entire play intact is the sheer volume of words that would have to be memorized. Even in this mildly condensed version, there were a few bobbled lines on opening night.
But these actors would probably be up to the challenge. John de Lancie maneuvers through Tanner's and Don Juan's speeches with elan , and he also brings an aristocratic bearing and distinctively insinuating body language to the role. Near the end, that body language is slightly overdone, but that was just one more symptom of the slow grinding of gears that afflicts that last act.
Marnie Mosiman's Ann maintains her control of the action with a beautifully light touch. And as Dona Ana during the "Don Juan" sequence, it's Mosiman who sings a few bars of "Don Giovanni," in contrast with the men who usually do the honors--a wise choice, considering the power of Mosiman's singing voice.
Jarion Monroe is a funny lovesick brigand and an extremely suave devil, assisted by a glittery gold Playboy Mansion-style outfit designed by Shigeru Yaji. As Roebuck Ramsden/the Statue, blustery George Ede gets more mileage out of his eyebrows than any SCR actor since I.M. Hobson in the last two Shavian productions.
The more John Walcutt's Octavius cries, the more laughs he gets. He cries a lot. Lynne Griffin plays his sister (superbly steely, but perhaps a bit old for the role), and Patricia Fraser, Don Sparks and David Anthony Smith lend fine support.
Set designer Cliff Faulkner again uses puffy white clouds, as he did in "You Never Can Tell," but this time they cover a backdrop that curves down to the floor. They suggest the otherworldly aspect of "Don Juan in Hell," but they don't do much for the rest of the play. Sound designer Michael Roth's selection of Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra and "Annie Get Your Gun" tunes add a few sly grace notes.
At 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. $21-$28; (714) 957-4033.
MAN AND SUPERMAN
By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Martin Benson. Sets by Cliff Faulkner. Costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Music and sound by Michael Roth. Production manager Ed Lapine. Stage manager Bonnie Lorenger. With George Ede, Marijen Gorska, John Walcutt, John de Lancie, Marnie Mosiman, Patricia Fraser, Anni Long, Lynne Griffin, Don Sparks, David Anthony Smith, Jarion Monroe, John Ellington, Art Koustik, Don Took, Paul Abajian, Mike Strickland, Richard Doyle.