Review: A brilliant chat fest at A Noise Within, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw

"Misalliance" at A Noise Within, Josey Montana McCoy, Deborah Strang, Riley Shanahan, Frederick Stuart and Peter Van Norden.
“Misalliance” at A Noise Within with Josey Montana McCoy, Deborah Strang, Riley Shanahan, Frederick Stuart and Peter Van Norden.
(Craig Schwartz)

Characters are never at a loss for words in the plays of George Bernard Shaw. What the French call “esprit d’escalier,” or staircase wit, to refer to those moments when the perfect rejoinder is thought of only after it’s too late, is not an experience that commonly afflicts his hyper-articulate crew.

Shaw’s “Misalliance,” now in revival at A Noise Within in Pasadena, offers the pleasures of brilliant chat. It’s a wordy play, running close to three hours. The plot, which includes the crash landing of an airplane and an armed intruder out to settle a family score, is nearly all talk.

Shaw originally subtitled his play “A Debate in One Sitting.” Recognizing the length of the proceedings, he added an author’s note saying that the curtain will be lowered twice for the audience’s convenience. There’s only one intermission at A Noise Within, but the sparkling conversation keeps the play galloping apace.


“Misalliance” may not be the finest of Shaw’s disquisitional dramas. “Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” an argumentative state-of-the-nation play with eccentrically drawn characters of Chekhovian complexity, represents the pinnacle of the playwright’s achievement in this genre.

Shaw was still working out in “Misalliance” the musical structure he would perfect in “Heartbreak House.” Social issues are taken up and then allowed to recede, returning like themes in a symphony without concern for resolution. The joy is in the play of ideas, the eternal back and forth of opposing viewpoints, the variation of intellectual motifs in a recurring pattern.

Frederick Stuart and Erika Soto in "Misalliance" at A Noise Within.
Frederick Stuart and Erika Soto in “Misalliance” at A Noise Within.
(Craig Schwartz)

The play concerns the relationship of parents and children. Shaw’s focus is on the education of the younger generation, not for social or professional prestige but for human fulfillment and the enrichment of society.

The conflict between the young and the old is explored in the context of social class. The aristocracy, the moneyed middle class and the working poor are set side by side to see which might have the generational advantage.

Playwriting for Shaw served as a kind of political blog, a repository for his wide-ranging thinking, generously distributed among a cross-section of characters. This might sound dry but it’s actually scintillatingly entertaining, thanks to Shaw’s keen intelligence, verbal virtuosity and spry theatrical instincts.


“Misalliance,” as the title suggests, revolves around the question of marriage. This disputatious sociopolitical drama is cunningly packaged as a romantic comedy.

At stake in the plot is the future happiness of Hypatia (Erika Soto), the free-thinking daughter of wealthy underwear manufacturer John Tarleton (Peter Van Norden). She’s engaged to Bentley Summerhays (Josey Montana McCoy), the effete son of Lord Summerhays (Frederick Stuart), a former governor of a British colony.

But she isn’t sure that Bentley’s aristocratic refinements are enough for her. She appreciates his brain but would like more brawn. More than anything, she wants to live her life as “an active verb” and not as a prisoner of respectable morality.

This longing is answered when Joseph Percival (Dan Lin) makes an emergency airplane landing that shatters the Tarletons’ greenhouse. His passenger, Lina Szczepanowska (Trisha Miller), a Polish acrobat in disguise as a man, saves the day with her quick action and no-nonsense fearlessness.

As all the men fall madly under the spell of the audaciously heroic Lina, Hypatia decides that Joey, the man who just fell out of the sky, is meant to sweep her off her feet. So what if he’s an old friend of her fiancé’s. About that gun-toting intruder (played by Joshua Bitton), not to worry — the fabulously athletic Lina has him covered.

Trisha Miller, Josey Montana McCoy, Peter Van Norden, Dan Lin in "Misalliance."
Trisha Miller, Josey Montana McCoy, Peter Van Norden, Dan Lin in “Misalliance.”
(Craig Schwartz)

The play takes place at the Tarletons’ elegant home in Surrey, handsomely imagined by scenic designer Angela Balogh Calin. The issues of “Misalliance” haven’t expired, but the milieu and period of the play must be respected, and on this score especially Guillermo Cienfuegos’ staging succeeds. I drove to Pasadena but felt transported to Edwardian England.

The production opens on a somewhat cartoonish note. Riley Shanahan as the square businessman son of Mr. Tarleton, and McCoy as the exasperatingly “overbred” Bunny (Bentley’s nickname) overplay their difference to vivid comic effect but at the expense of subtlety. (Shaw’s comedy works best when actors play their humorous roles as straight as possible.)

But the revival finds its groove once the veteran actors take over. Van Norden, a dab hand with Shakespeare, is a natural for Shaw. Deborah Strang as Mrs. Tarleton perfectly balances the character’s conscience and conventionality. Stuart imbues Lord Summerhays with somber suavity.

All three parents are dogged by misgivings and regrets about their children. On the topic of his relationship with his sons, Lord Summerhays confesses to “a sort of remorse about the way we shake hands.” It’s the kind of majestically phrased remark that naturally occurs in Shaw’s dialogue and shifts the play’s emotional weather.

Soto, who was a winning Beatrice in Cienfuegos’ production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at A Noise Within last year, is excellent here. Her Hypatia, the spoiled ingenue turned rebel, is wild and wayward yet fighting a worthy fight. “Men like conventions because men made them,” she declares with frustrated sanity, making clear she won’t uphold what crushes her freedom.

Miller’s glorious Lina, a woman who rejects bourgeois propriety as beneath her, is one of Shaw’s great comic creations. She challenges the other characters even more robustly than Hypatia to step out of their minds and into their bodies, prescribing physical exercise as a remedy for lives oversaturated with words.


Lina provides the truest example in the play of how to live independently, with courage and heart. She’s an emissary from another world, a mismatch with the characters of “Misalliance” and all the more appreciated for showing them an alternative they never dreamed existed.


Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 9
Tickets: Start at $29
Contact: or (626) 356-3100
Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission)