On Theater: 'Misalliance' makes grand return

One might be forgiven for anticipating reams of social commentary on a variety of 19th century topics — ranging from socialism to women's rights to class warfare — from a George Bernard Shaw comedy.

And while "Misalliance," the season opener at South Coast Repertory, contains all these things in a package approaching three hours, it also packs a punch. Director Martin Benson, a veteran of Shavian staging, has infused the production with two essential elements, volume and animated energy, that make those three hours pass rapidly.

"Misalliance" was written a full 100 years ago, yet the SCR rendition comes across the footlights with a 21st century immediacy, thanks to Benson's minutely creative direction and a top-notch cast. The dialogue is not only declaimed, it's hammered into place with a vengeance.

Shaw placed his action in the spacious solarium belonging to a blustery millionaire, who gained his fortune manufacturing men's underwear, and whose dissatisfied daughter is being courted by the wimpiest kid on the block. Others drop in — some literally, from the sky — and stir a delicious confection of words, wisdom and wackiness.

Two performances stand out in a highly impressive ensemble. The always-forceful Dakin Matthews devours the stage as the garment mogul who's read just about everything (he incessantly advises others to "read" this or that author) and draws on a fountain of energy that decries his age. And Melanie Lora excels wonderfully as his daughter Hypatia (Patsy), who seeks to clamp a lid on all this talk and yearns for a little personal fulfillment.

The whining wimp is played to perfection by Wyatt Fenner, who'll get on your nerves but in a highly entertaining manner. Daniel Bess is less successful as Lora's stuffy brother, while Richard Doyle turns in a solid performance as Fenner's titled father, who harbors a letch for Lora's character. Amelia White is the soul of propriety as Matthews' wife.

A plane's crash landing (not long after the Wright brothers first explored the sky) injects a farcical note into the proceedings, bringing with it a stiff upper-lipped pilot (Peter Katona) and his seductive Polish passenger (Kirsten Potter) who's lusted after by young and old, both stymied at the pronunciation of her surname (Szczepanowska).

Shaw saves his broadest comedic character — a Marxist clerk with murderous intentions, played with all stops out by JD Cullum — for last. It's a slight subplot at best, but it achieves the objective of stirring up the plot even further.

Ralph Funicello's elaborate scenic design provides a dominating backdrop, while Maggie Morgan's elegant period costuming and Tom Ruzika's lighting design further enhance the production. Original music from Michael Roth bolsters the atmospheric effect.

"Misalliance," first produced by SCR in 1987, makes an illustrious return visit under the full-blooded guidance of director Benson and peppered with an extraordinary cast. It may be a century old, but this play ages magnificently.

If You Go:

WHAT: "Misalliance"

WHERE: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

WHEN: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 & 8, Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 until Oct. 10

COST: $28 to $66

CALL: (714) 708-5555

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It's been a few generations since "The Rainmaker" visited a local theater (1966 by my count), so N. Richard Nash's dramatic comedy of parched Middle America will come as a new play-going experience to many patrons visiting the Newport Theater Arts Center.

Having previously staged the musical version of this story ("110 in the Shade" back in the 1980s), Newport now returns to the original tale of a smooth-talking con man who promises precipitation to the parched residents of rural Nebraska in the Depression-riddled 1930s.

Director Cecilia Fannon — whose own play, "Green Icebergs," graced the South Coast Repertory stage back in 1994 — has instilled a sense of quiet desperation into her production, on the part of both a hot, dry ranching family and their lone female member who's all but resigned herself to chaste spinsterhood.

Lizzie Curry —beautifully enacted by Karen Wray — is tall, hardy and unlovely when the spellbinder Starbuck (a wildly energetic Philip Bushell) arrives to captivate the family with his promise of rain for only $100. The other miracle, polishing Lizzie's self-image, he throws in for free.

Opposition surfaces in the sour personage of Lizzie's grim-faced "realistic" brother Noah (Rob Lanning), a force enthusiastically offset by her younger brother Jimmy (Paul Breazeale), who's in the process of discovering life and love. Their father (Alan Slabodkin) keeps his cautious distance.

Wray's achingly realistic depiction of unfulfilled passion anchors the Newport production, along with the contrasting charm of Bushell's brash Starbuck. These two contrasting forces intermingle splendidly in their tack room scene as Starbuck beautifies Lizzie simply by letting down her hair and creating a new, exotic name for her.

Another vital element is Michael Csoppenszky's taciturn deputy, File, embittered by betrayal in romance and hesitant to re-enter that arena. His painfully awkward moment with Wray's Lizzie — separated by a gulf of emptiness across the stage — is one of the show's quiet highlights.

Awkwardness, in fact, is a key ingredient in this story and Fannon's deft touch intensifies this overriding sense of discomfort. Bushell's Barnum-esque arrival as Starbuck further underscores the family's overriding desperation, while Bruce Curry's solidly drawn sheriff anchors the "outside world" of the story.

Andrew Otero's ranch house setting is spare but immaculate, perhaps too much so given the time and circumstances. Mitch Atkins' fine lighting effects and the plain, unassuming costumes by Joni Stockinger and Bettie Mullenberg further enhance the production.

"The Rainmaker" is, by now, a period piece, recalling a bygone era when emotions were stifled, but could be awakened by a spellbinding showman akin to Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man." Don't be surprised if we get a touch of rain in Newport Beach.

If You Go

WHAT: "The Rainmaker"

WHERE: Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. until Oct. 10

COST: $20

CALL: (949) 631-0288

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

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