A Lovable Philanderer at the Pearl: Theatre Review

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Bradford Cover (Leonard Charteris) and Karron Graves (Julia Craven)

How It’s New York:  This is a production of the Pearl Theatre, one of New York’s treasures; a company that specializes in strong productions of classic work.  Also, let’s face it, sex scandals are so New York.
How It’s Irish:  George Bernard Shaw was Irish, and the title character of the Philanderer (based on himself) has a smooth tongue, biting wit and huge ego.  Sounds Irish to me.

A version of this review first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Feb. 7.  The show runs at City Center through the 19th.

By the way, if the two photos here look similar, that’s because it’s the same guy with two different ladies.  Says it all, really.

Wowing The Ladies

Rachel Botchan (Grace Tranfield) and Bradford Cover (Leonard Charteris)
By Gwen Orel
You might think of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) as a vegetarian celibate in a Jaeger wool suit, and he was that, later in his life, but when he was younger, he was also a rake.
He got a late start as the institution he later became, working as an impoverished theatre critic and journalist (comrade!) for years.
His first play Widower’s Houses was produced when he was 37.
The Philanderer was published in 1898, but was considered too scandalous for the stage (the Lord Chamberlain had censorship duties in theatre in England until 1968), and was not performed until 1902.
Odds are you’ve never seen it. Don’t miss the production at the Pearl Theatre, running until February 19.
It’s beautifully produced, wonderfully funny, and thoroughly entertaining. And yes, it’s somewhat risqué (sex is definitely hinted at), and certainly subversive.

The play tells the story of Leonard Charteris (Bradford Cover), who’s in love with Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan), but hasn’t thoroughly ended things with Julia Craven (Karron Graves).
Julia bursts in on Leonard and Grace, shrieking.
Shaw had been involved in a similar situation when he had an affair with actress Florence Farr, and his old mistress Jenny Patterson burst in on him.
Adding to this, the play also reflects Shaw’s passion for Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Shaw was so taken with Ibsen, author of The Doll’s House and Ghosts, that he even wrote a long essay called The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which argues that Ibsen’s social examinations were the future of theatre (of course, Shaw’s essay is, really, about Shaw).
He certainly leaped on The Doll’s House in his exploration of gender roles, and envisioned, in his early plays in particular, a New Woman, who rejected womanly wiles in favor of masculine directness.
But Shaw being Shaw, he can’t help but also be funny. In The Philanderer, he invents an Ibsen club, where women can only belong if they are “unwomanly.”
A portrait of Ibsen hangs on the wall; Julia’s younger sister Sylvia (Shalita Grant) hangs around there dressed in pants, and older gentlemen, like the fathers of the two rivals, join mainly to keep an eye on things.
Such a club never existed in real life, and it’s part of Shaw’s mischievous Irish humor to invent it so thoroughly.

Chris Mixon (Dr. Paramore) and Olivia (Leonard Charteris)
Joseph Cuthbertson (Dominic Cuskern), Grace’s father, works as a theatre critic.
“Didn’t you hear me say that he was the leading representative of manly sentiment in London?” Charteris says of him, poking fun at the theatre’s artificiality.
Colonel Daniel Craven (Dan Daily), the father of the two girls, is a sensible straight man.
A subplot involving Dr. Paramore (Chris Mixon), who has mistakenly diagnosed the girls’ father with a deadly disease, and also loves the womanly Julia, demonstrates Shaw’s budding interests in science and vegetarianism (the doctor performs experiments on animals). It’s also hilarious.  Mixon as fills every moment with sincere, dumb enthusiasm.
Such a club never existed in real life, and it’s part of Shaw’s mischievous Irish humor to invent it so thoroughly.
Director Gus Kaikkonen paces the show at a farcical clip, which works well.
The cast, as always at the Pearl (which specializes in Classic Theatre, and, unusually in this day and age, draws from a Resident Acting Company), are able and entertaining.
Botchan’s Grace has the unfortunate task of playing Shaw’s ideal New Woman-cool, sensible, and full of renunciations (Shaw throughout his life and in his plays shared an Irish ideal of love as more pure unobtained).
She does well with what is essentially a dull role.
Graves’ Julia is a bit too shrieky – it’s funny, but it’s over the top.
This is director Gus Kaikkonen’s one mistake – she’s so thoroughly irritating it’s hard to see what Leonard could ever have seen in her, apart from her prettiness.
Jo Winiarski’s flexible set changes from private homes to the Ibsen club cleverly.
As Leonard, Cover is almost an anti-rake.
He’s a big bearded guy (looking a little young Shaw-like), who entices women by taking them seriously.
Running at The Pearl Theatre(www.pearltheatre.org), New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, through February 19. 212-581-1212 orwww.nycitycenter.org
As he points out, he’s neither handsome nor well-dressed: 

Then whose fault is it that half the women I speak to fall in love with me? Not mine: I hate it: it bores me to distraction. At first it flattered me -delighted me – that was how Julia got me, because she was the first woman who had the pluck to make me a declaration. But I soon had enough of it; and at no time have I taken the initiative and persecuted women with my advances as women have persecuted me. Never. Except, of course, in your case.”

Well, what woman could resist that?
 Of course, Leonard is unable to see that he’s a classic Irish charmer – full of talk, fun and ego.
He’s annoyingly lovable – and so is this production.
The Philanderer is out of copyright; you can read the play online at Project Gutenberg. 

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