Any theater attempting George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance would do well to distribute, along with the evening's playbill, toothpicks for the purpose of supporting drooping eyelids. This is not a gripe. The principal mischief of Shaw's classic comedy of manners is that it does not begin until just before intermission, or roughly an hour into the evening's proceedings. When Shaw does finally get down to business, he does so with a typically Shavian flourish: An airplane with a cargo of romantic possibility drops out of the sky and into the laps of the Tarleton family, heretofore the epitome of Edwardian mediocrity. Yet before the plane's unscheduled landing, the audience is left in much the same condition as the Tarletons themselves, listening to endless upper-class prattle and pinching skin to stay awake. Only Shaw would risk lulling his patrons into a stupor in order to prove that talk is, indeed, a cheap substitute for good sense.
At the Guthrie, which has not attempted a Shaw play since the Reagan administration, the Tarletons' dull domain is circumscribed by set designer Peter Hartwell's sparely furnished library, replete with fake books, windows that look out on nothing, and nonsensical words scrawled across the floor. The denizens of the place are equally stodgy. Bentley Summerhays (Adam Stein), a lad who is "all brains and no more body than absolutely necessary," gets on the nerves of Johnny Tarleton (Scott Ferrara), a clod with the inverse distribution of gray and muscle matter, while awaiting a marriage of convenience to the daughter of the household, Hypatia (Heather Robison). The prospective fathers-in-law, Tarleton (Edwin Owens) and Summerhays (Dennis Creaghan), chatter like horse traders discussing breeding stock. Tarleton, in a wonderfully Dickensian affectation, ends each observation with a literary footnote. For Shaw's idle rich, education is, as Ambrose Bierce once put it, a process wherein dust from old books is poured into empty skulls.
The nominal plot of the first act revolves laboriously around the coming union of Bentley and Hypatia (in French, "mésalliance" means marrying below one's social rank). It is not so clear, however, which of the involved parties is stooping to couple. Bentley is, at least, of good stock. "He is overbred," Mrs. Tarleton (Barbara Byrne) explains, "like one of those little dogs." Hypatia, who shows some small glimmer of vitality, is disenchanted with the arrangement. "Who would risk marrying a man for love," she exclaims. "It would make a perfect slave of you." In her, there are shades of Eliza Doolittle's flirtation with independence, and eventual renunciation of the sexual contract. Yet unlike Pygmalion, Misalliance is only peripherally concerned with the journey from domesticity to autonomy. Shaw's purpose here is to poke holes in the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, and he does so with readily apparent glee.
Shaw, who was not known for withholding his opinions, likely produced a suitable epigram for every occasion--he was a one-man Hallmark for cynics. Misalliance, which was originally subtitled "A Debate in One Sitting," finds him in fine, indulgent form. On philanthropy he offers: "Everybody's business is nobody's business." On politics: "Democracy reads well; but it doesn't act well, like some people's plays." On gender inequality: "Men like conventions because men made them." For all the author's wit, though, the repartee grows tiresome. Director Neil Munro attempts to bolster the featherweight comedy of the first act with what initially seems a silly conceit: The actors read occasionally from dual lecterns, so that, at various moments throughout the evening, one of the supposedly glib Tarletons will stutter, scramble madly for the script, peruse with knotted brow, and continue.
If Munro seems to be making a case for Shaw as the forefather of the theater of the absurd, the author himself proffers the most convincing evidence. Quite without warning to those audience members who've settled in for a nice nap, Shaw shatters the domestic banality with the aforementioned plane crash. Into the Tarleton household come two aviators, Joseph (Bill McCallum) and Lina Szczepanowska (Casey Stewart-Lindley), and an inept socialist revolutionary dubbed Gunner (Jim Lichtscheidl, a comic actor of the first order), who bursts from a Turkish bath waving a gun and shouting "I am the son of Lucinda Titmus." Joseph offers a new possibility for Hypatia. Lina, who is a Nietzschean superwoman in black leathers, does the same for every male in the household. Social order devolves into carnal chaos.
As it should, the second act gives the Guthrie's cast a chance to ham. Byrne, who has never been better, sets her unblinking eyes and tiny crinkle of a mouth to telegraph both deep eccentricity and sweetness. Owens, who shies too much from caricature in the first act, also finds the endearing foolishness in Tarleton. This is as Shaw would have had it; he was too much a humanist to skewer his subjects' pretensions without making an equally convincing case for their intentions.
The challenge, faced in every production of Misalliance, is to articulate the extent to which the plane crash disrupts the staid world of words in which the Tarletons exist and opens it to the reckless passions of modernity. Hartwell's set does much of the work for the Guthrie. His conservatory transforms slowly throughout the second act until it is a hothouse looking out upon a pleasant outdoor scene. Fresh air has come at last into the stuffy recesses of Edwardian society. "I suppose there's nothing more to be said," muses Tarleton as yet another airplane thrums overhead. "Thank goodness," sighs Hypatia. Thank you, indeed.