Theatre Review: Lift off with Man and Superman at Irish Rep

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Max Gordon Moore, Janie Brookshire(James Higgins)
How It’s New York: This was a co-production Gingold Theatrical Group, which runs the highly successful Project Shaw monthly staged readings, and the Irish Repeertory Theatre, widely considered to be one of the best companies in New York City. David Staller, who leads Project Shaw/Gingold Theatrical Group, directs. This is the first outing in “Shaw New York,” a festival of Shaw events around the city. The production runs through June 17.
How It’s Irish: George Bernard Shaw was Irish, although for years he was claimed as an English writer because he first found success there (like most Irish playwrights had through the 19th century) and continued to live there. But you know, you can take the man out of Ireland…. Although Shaw rarely wrote plays directly about the Irish, he constantly makes digs at the English, and Man and Superman is no exception. There’s even an Irish character (with some choice things to say about the English). There’s a Jewish character, too, making this Jirish.
A version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA.
When I was an intern at Berkeley Rep, there was a glorious, glorious production of this show, directed by Irene Lewis. Their version, like this one below, included the often-cut dream sequence “Don Juan in Hell,” and was nearly four hours long, which flew by in a breeze. I saw it twice.
I came into this both loving the play and knowing it had strong competition in my memory. Staller ably does it justice. His version, though shorter, interestingly makes use of the maxims in the “Revolutionist’s Handbook,” written by the play’s irritatingly loquacious, completely irresistible Jack Tanner, here played by Max Gordon Moore (who is a terrific find. Bet we’ll be seeing lots more of him).
“…the philosophy is endurable because Shaw can’t help deflating it.”

Living A Super Life At The Irish Rep

Max Gordon Moore, Jonathan Hammond, and Janie Brookshire  (@James Higgins)

One of Shaw’s most Shavian plays is running in a crackling co-production with the Irish Repertory Theatre and Gingold Theatrical Group, the company that produces the monthly reading series “Project Shaw” through June 17.

David Staller, who runs Gingold Theatrical Group, helms “Man and Superman,” and demonstrates not only his deep love and understanding of the great Irish playwright, but also his strong theatrical sense.
Written in 1903 (though not produced until 1905), “Man and Superman” is long – four acts, including the “Don Juan in Hell” dream sequence, which often is produced as a stand-alone, and cut from productions of the play. That act was first produced with the play in 1915. (You can read the whole play at Project Gutenberg).

Staller has cut the play down to just about two and a half hours (allow for three, with an intermission), without losing any of the play’s beats. That alone would be remarkable, but his accomplishments do not end end there. He’s put together a remarkable cast. As the first outing in what is to be “Shaw New York,” a festival of Shaw events around the city, the excellent “Man and Superman” suggests that this series will be a worthy addition to the city’s cultural offerings.

If you’ve only read the play or seen flat amateur productions, you really need to go and see this one at Irish Rep. 

While a great play, it’s not so perfect that it can’t be done badly – and it often is. In the play Shaw creates a vehicle for his philosophy, and handled badly, the play can be sluggish. The title is taken from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (the Nazis loved him too), and Jack Tanner (Max Gordon Moore) declaims about this Superman, specifically, about the “Life Force” and the nature of man. But actually, Tanner, a self-styled revolutionary, though a gentleman with an independent income, shows more interest in the way the life force drives woman to seek a mate. And therein is the play’s fun.

It would be extremely tedious to listen to characters, however clever and attractive, talk about the Purpose of Man for three or four hours. But watching the characters chase each other romantically, while the one who claims to most immune is clearly the, as his chauffeur calls him, “marked-out victim,” is hugely entertaining.

At times the delivery of dialogue could stand a bit more variation in volume and intensity but overall this “Man and Superman” zips brightly along.

George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), a theatre and music critic as well as a writer, is just too much of an entertainer to let the philosophy get in the way of a good yarn.

He also can’t resist a few jabs at the English middle class, spoken by an Irishman.

Brian Murray, Max Gordon Moore (@James Higgins)

The story begins after the death of Mr. Whitefield, and the discovery that Whitefield has entrusted both his old friend Ramsden (Brian Murray) and free-thinking Jack to be the guardian of his daughter Ann (Janie Brookshire). Jack is the author of “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” a volume included with published versions of the play. Lines from it are recited by characters (a conceit of Staller’s) at the top of each scene change. Like the aphorisms of Oscar Wilde, Shaw’s observations are funny and deep at the same time:

 “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” 

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

That last also appears in the play. Tanner tells Octavius Robinson (Will Bradley), who loves the mischievous Ann,

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food. I think Ann loves you that way: she patted your cheek as if it were a nicely underdone chop.” 

Tavy’s sister Violet (Margaret Loesser Robinson) has made a secret marriage, refusing to reveal the name of her husband. When Jack discovers that Ann, once a childhood playmate who demanded he tell her everything, is really after him, not Tavy, Jack flees with his chauffeur Straker (Brian Sgambati) to Spain.

Motorcars were new at this time, and the play gives us not one but two, when another party carrying Ann, her mother Mrs. Whitfield (Laurie Kennedy), Violet and the American millionaire Hector (Zachary Spicer) follows in close pursuit.

Will Bradley, Jonathan Hammond, Max Gordon Moore, Brian Murray, Paul O’Brien, Margaret Loesser Robinson, Janie Brookshire (@James Higgins)

In Spain, Jack and Straker are kidnapped by brigands led by the lovelorn, Jewish Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond). In the mountains, before he and Straker are rescued, Jack dreams of being Don Juan in Hell. Like “The Wizard of Oz,” all the dream characters are played by people in Jack’s “real” life: Ann is now Dona Anna, from Mozart’s opera (Straker had whistled tunes from it earlier), the woman whom Don Juan loved and whose father he killed in a duel. The devil is played by the brigand. And so on. The message of the witty but strange dream sequence is that Hell is much more pleasant than Heaven, because in Heaven “you see things as they are.”
Right at the end, Dona Ana realizes that her purpose is to find “a father for the Superman.”

This revelation sets up Act Four, in which Ann goes in for the kill, and we also meet the Irishman Malone (Paul O’Brien). 

Shaw’s superman philosophy is less revelatory than, really, a lot of words.

Margaret Loesser Robinson, Janie Brookshiere, and Laurie Kennedy (James Higgins)

In a post-Holocaust world, the idea of the “superman” has been tainted, and the notion that a woman’s deep purpose is to reproduce feels not just antiquated but unknowingly misogynistic (believe it or not, G.B.S., some women feel their purpose is, like yours, art, politics, etc). But the philosophy is endurable because Shaw can’t help deflating it.

After Jack complains about the marriage market to Ann, finishing with a Declaration of Independence that

“The man who pleads his father’s authority is no man; the woman who pleads her mother’s authority is unfit to bear citizens to a free people,” 

Ann replies calmly,

“I suppose you will go in seriously for politics some day, Jack ….You talk so well.”

Even the Statue in Hell (played by Ramsden, in Jack’s dream) says “your flow of words is simply amazing, Juan.” 

Others see right through him, and so do we.
He knows a lot, but then again, he’s just so dumb.

His love for Ann is plain to everyone but him, and the romantic Tavy, who idolizes Ann and alone among everyone onstage, cannot see through her lies and manipulations.
Ann wisely says of him, to Jack,

“men like that always live in comfortable bachelor lodgins with broken hearts, and are adored by their landladies, and never get married. Men like you always get married.”

Brookshire’s Ann is winsome, selfish and irresistible. As Jack, Max Gordon Moore is almost bizarrely articulate, with boyish good looks that lend him an air of vulnerability.

Janie Brookshire, Max Gordon Moore (@James Higgins)

Robinson plays Violet less as “hard as nails,” as she’s described, than sweetly practical.
It’s an interesting approach, but it does not quite work. Bradley’s handsome Octavius gallantly falls for every romantic puffery he sees. If you liked Antonio Banderas in “Puss in Boots,” you’ll fall for Hammond as Mendoza/the Devil. The older characters particularly shone in modulation and subtlety.
Kennedy’s Mrs. Whitefield flutters; she has insight but no authority over her willful child.

Paul O’Brien, as Malone, blusters some terrific lines.
Determined at first that his son Hector should marry only a titled person or a peasant, like his mother, a “barefooted Irish girl,” he’s quickly won over by (spoiler alert) Violet’s managerial control.
When Violet refers to “the famine,” he replies furiously,

“the starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine.”

His revenge on the English is to buy it out from under them.
But Violet gets around him entirely. Hector, she says, is “romantic and faddy – he gets it from you, I fancy – and he wants a certain sort of wife to take care of him.”
And it isn’t long before Malone is saying, in a strong accent, “that’ll be a grand woman for Hector.”

It’s the Irish love of a dominant mother figure, really, but it’s also very funny.

G.B.S. in 1909

Shaw sneaks some other complaints about the English into the mouths of other characters: Tanner complains about the

 “pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in;” 

the Statue observes that some people sit in Heaven

 “not because they are happy, but because they think they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English.” 

James Noone’s white and gold set design sets the characters in strong relief, and Theresa Squire’s costumes, along with Robert-Charles Valiance’s hair and wig design, are a treat for the eyes.

 
Staller’s final tableau has the characters posing for a photograph.
It’s a photo to be cherished, a memory to savor, like the production itself. 

Man and Superman, presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre and Gingold Theatrical Group, runs at Irish Repertory Theatre through June 17. Performances Wed., 3 and 8 p.m.; Thurs., 7 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 and 8 p.m., and Sun at 3. Tickets at (212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org. Irish Repertory Theatre is at 132 W. 22nd Street, bet. 5th and 7th Avenues.
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