George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance” is a feat of prophecy as much as it is a feat of playwriting. In this comedy, first performed in 1910, Shaw seems to see whole 20th century stretching out before him, and he’s staring at the 1960s in particular, with old-fashioned propriety tossed aside, formerly respected elders revealed as fools and women taking more control over their lives.
It’s a play about the thrilling chaos that ensues when people stop acting like they really believe the fragile lies they tell each other to keep society together, and start dealing with each other in a more honest way. You could almost use MTV’s slogan for its groundbreaking reality program, “The Real World”: In “Misalliance,” you “find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
(A warning, though: I’ve rarely had such different responses to the two halves of a two-act play. I felt there was way too much talk with nothing, dramatically, at stake, in the first act. But I loved the twists and turns of the second act, and laughed often. So, if you go to the play and find it a bit frustrating at first, bear with it, and I think you’ll be happy by the end.)
The play, directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, takes in a single day in the conservatory — a pretty little jewel box designed by Brian Clinnin — of a country house owned by John Tarleton (Ames Adamson), who has made a fortune in the underwear business. His daughter Hypatia (Katie Fabel) is engaged to the immature, almost childish Bentley “Bunny” Summerhays (Matthew Sherbach), who, understandably, does not get much respect from Hypatia’s somewhat snobbish brother, Johnny (Brian Cade). Bentley’s father, Lord Summerhays (Jonathan Gillard Daly), is attracted to Hypatia as well.
Hypatia’s mother, Mrs. Tarleton (Erika Rolfsrud), has a heart-to-heart talk to her about men.
Hypatia: “I remember three girls at school who agreed that the one man you should never marry was the man you were in love with, because it would make a perfect slave of you. …”
Mrs. Tarleton: “Does all that mean that you’re not in love with Bunny?”
Hypatia: “Oh, how could anybody be in love with Bunny?”
The action picks up considerably at the end of the first act, when a harbinger from the future — an airplane — crashes outside the home. The two passengers, handsome pilot Joey Percival (Robbie Simpson) and professional acrobat Lina Szczepanowska (Caralyn Kozlowski), are unharmed, and are welcomed into the home. Hypatia falls for Joey. And virtually all the males fall for Lina. Meanwhile, a stranger arrives with a gun, and an agenda, of his own.
Hypatia is blunt with Joey about her attraction, and Joey, though taken aback at first, eventually becomes just as blunt. And by the end of the play, virtually everyone’s secrets are out in the open. And, what do you know, life goes on. Maybe, even, life improves a little bit, once the facades are gone.
Standouts among the actors are Adamson, whose character starts out confident, almost serene, but then shows the sheer panic that sets in when new ways start to replace the old; and Kozlowski, as the no-nonsense, confidently independent acrobat. She’s an utterly unique character in an utterly unique play.
“Misalliance” is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through Aug. 30; visit shakespearenj.org.