In a prefatory note written 36 years after he finished The Philanderer, George Bernard Shaw writes: "There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years. In men it is called doting, in plays dating. The more topical the play the more it dates. The Philanderer suffers from this complaint. In the 1890s, when it was written, not only dramatic literature but life itself was staggering from the impact of Ibsen's plays..."
By 1930, Shaw had grown to dislike The Philanderer, a problematic play that in its first professional production (which did not occur until 1905) was labeled "...one of Mr. Shaw's least happy experiments" by the London Times. In this, his second play, the always-didactic Shaw takes on the relationship between the sexes, the sanctity of the medical profession, the generation gap and the moralities inspired by the writings of Henrik Ibsen, spewing forth his polemics with only a hint of the elegant polish that was to grace his later works. It has more elements of farce than are usual for Shaw (odd, considering how much he disliked the form), the references to Ibsen seem slavish, and while Ibsen's plays are still a marvel of psychological acuity, The Philanderer, for all of its "modern" posturing about seduction and women's rights, is most decidedly not as shockingly original or as rollickingly funny as it was intended to be. It seems singularly appropriate that the play is published in a volume entitled "Plays Unpleasant."
In that aforementioned prefatory note, Shaw continues: "I make no attempt to bring the play up to date... At all events I shall leave the play as it is; for all the attempts within my experience to modernize ancient plays have only produced worse anachronisms than those they aimed at remedying."
What a pity then, that Elowyn Castle ignored Shaw's advice and set the recent Oberon Theatre Ensemble's production (replete with the U.S. premiere of the long-unpublished final act) in the decidedly Noel Coward world of late 1920s London. Suffice to say that nothing worked to anyone's advantage, least of all Shaw's, Ibsen's, or, for that matter, Coward's. Castle's direction itself seemed halfhearted, and the production never built up the farcical head of steam it seemed to be going for. The performances, with one notable exception, were either fatuously unappealing or screechily hysterical. The one exception was the sublime Finnerty Steeves, whose coolly elegant, no-nonsense approach to her role was a welcome relief from the labored but noisy doldrums surrounding her.
Even the physical production, poorly lit and dreadfully designed, suffered from a sort of bewilderment as to its purpose. Denise Verrico's costumes were the most successful element of the evening, an assortment of lovely flapper outfits and black-tie regalia that wouldn't have looked out of place on the decks of the Ile de France, but her sets looked more '70s revival deco than the real thing, and were poorly executed to boot. No one was credited for the lighting, which went on and off, usually on cue.
As for the final act, Lady Colin Campbell's advice that it should have been put "into the fire" may have been somewhat dismissive, but its inclusion into this production didn't help matters either. Whether or not The Philanderer will ever take its place aside Shaw's later, greater works is still to be determined. This production, however, didn't reveal a neglected masterpiece with or without that missing final act, and sadly, proved a huge bump in the road that Oberon Theatre Ensemble have been traversing with ever-increasing alacrity.
(Also featuring Steve Abbruscato; Jane Courtney; Larry Giantonio; Donovan Johnson; Donovan Johnson IV; Stu Richel; Niki Sarich-Rising.)
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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita