SCINTILLATING VERSION OF GEORGE BERNARD SHAW'S FIVE-HOUR-LONG "COMEDY AND A PHILOSOPHY" CLOCKS IN UNDER THREE HOURS
BY HENRY EDWARDS
How do you mount a play that takes five hours to perform?
That question apparently plagues anyone who wants to produce George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 classic, “Man and Superman,” last seen Off-Broadway 24 years ago in 1988 and before that on Broadway 33 years ago in 1979.
Irish Rep solved the problem by joining forces with David Staller’s Gingold Theatrical Group. Staller is known for a series of staged readings of Shaw’s plays at the Players Club, and he set about adapting and directing a streamlined edition of “Man and Superman” as the first vehicle in an annual "Shaw NY Festival.”
Staller’s edit shrinks the ultra-talky epic almost in half. “Man and Superman” was originally written in four acts, beginning in the English countryside and ending in the mountains of Spain with Act Three transporting the characters to the underworld in a dream sequence where their alter egos engage in a two-hour debate about a multitude of issues.
This act usually bares the stand-alone title, “Don Juan in Hell,” and normally is omitted in productions of the play. Staller chooses instead to perform 45 minutes of the lengthy sequence, providing audiences with at least a taste of Shaw’s original intention.
At the outset of the play, after the death of her father, charming, scheming, hypocritical Ann Whitefield (Janie Brookshire) becomes the joint ward of two men, stuffy, old-fashioned, ultra-respectable Roebuck Ramsden (Brian Murray ) and the wealthy, politically-minded, freedom loving intellectual, John Tanner (Max Gordon Moore), author of “The Revolutionist's Handbook.”
Serving as Shaw’s unconstrained and frequently sarcastic mouthpiece, Tanner has plenty of challenging things to say about the long-held traditions, customs and manners of his countrymen. Most of all, he believes marriage would prevent him from achieving his higher intellectual and political ambitions.
Horrified to discover that of all things, Ann, a very determined young woman, intends to marry him, he flees. Unlike the typical heroines of her day, Ann, following her own instinctive moral code, becomes the aggressor and sets out in hot pursuit.
Ultimately, Tanner discovers his attraction to Ann is too overwhelming to allow him to escape his fate, and he relinquishes his unorthodox ideals and gives in to Ann’s mainstream desire to be married.
Shaw’s intention, suggested by the title which stems from Nietzsche's philosophical ideas about the "Superman," was to create a play reflecting his point of view that man is the "spiritual creator," while woman is the biological “life force” that allows her always to win where men are concerned.
In every culture, Shaw believed, it is the woman who forces the man to marry her rather than the other way around. Thus fulfilling her mission with regard to the "life force," it is Ann who finally gets Tanner to submit.
Traditionally, Don Juan is a pursuer of women, an adulterer, and an unrepentant scoundrel, and at the end of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” he is dragged to Hell, encouraging Shaw to wonder: What happened to Don Juan’s soul?
In the “Don Juan in Hell” sequence, the spirit of Don Juan lives on in the form of Juan’s distant descendant, John Tanner.
Instead of pursuing women, Tanner pursues truth. Rather than being an adulterer, he is a revolutionary. Instead of functioning as a scoundrel, he defies social-norms and old fashioned traditions in his desire to lead the way to a better world.
In order to speed the play along, Staller starts the play with the cast on stage, passing a copy of the script around and quoting some of Shaw’s wittiest lines. The device is repeated in order to set the scene as the action shifts dramatically to other locations (including Hell).
Bristling with wit, intelligence and sex appeal, Max Gordon Moore is marvelous as Jack, Janie Brookshire is deliciously devious as Ann, and Jonathan Hammond is hilarous as a bandit and the Devil.
Brian Murray, Will Bradley, Margaret Robinson, Laurie Kennedy, Brian Sgambati, Zachary Spicer and Paul O’Brien round out the terrific company.
Transforming the play into a comedy of manners with the actors not letting up for a second - everyone seems to be shouting all the time - may, nonetheless, be all for the good since Shaw's key ideas, despite the heady wit, do feel somewhat musty.
This may not be the authentic way to see the play, but at the moment it’s the only way to see a play of this length. And the result, on its own terms, is scintillating.
Staller's “Man and Superman” brims with intellectual agility, wit and good humor.