nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 23, 2005
Jean Cocteau Repertory's revival of Candida, directed by Michael Halberstam, is as light-hearted an entertainment as, I think, it's possible for a Shaw play to be. Though there are some matters presented here that are worth tossing around after the play concludes, for the most part this production is pure divertissement—a playful, smart, and occasionally wicked comedy (or at least so it must have seemed a century ago in Victorian England).
The story revolves around its title character, a young woman of such grace, beauty, worldliness, and self-possession that everyone on stage—with the possible exception of the the play's lone other female, one Proserpine Garnett—is ardently in love with her. (Miss Prossy, as she's called, is perhaps a little jealous, but even she has to admit that she can understand what the others see in her.) One of Candida's admirers is her husband, the Reverend James Morell, a Socialist but otherwise quite a proper man of the cloth; maybe even a bit stodgy. Vying with him—literally, as it turns out, is a besotted 20-year-old poet named Eugene Marchbanks, who can't conceive why someone as wonderful as Candida would be willing to remain in what looks to be, from where he's observing, such a dull marriage.
I was struck, incidentally, by how little sex seems to enter into things, either for Morell or Marchbanks.
Morell's protégé Lexy is also clearly enamored with Candida, albeit necessarily from afar. And the final character in the play can't help but adore her, for he's her father, Mr. Burgess, a businessman/scoundrel of the sort that seems inevitable in a Shavian comedy (think Alfred Doolittle crossed with Andrew Undershaft).
What about the lady herself? Well, she's amused by all this admiration, at least at first. But when it becomes clear that James and Eugene have taken it upon themselves to duel for her affections—or at least to duel with words, the way that two fundamentally physically cowardly men must—she realizes she'd better step in before any real damage is done to either party. With a maturity and strength of purpose that we probably all wish we possessed, she sets things right by the end of Act III, though in a fashion that almost still feels as revolutionary as it must have done in Shaw's own time.
Halberstam and his talented cast play the piece with great warmth and feeling, a little broadly perhaps, nailing the significant humor and making a case for every one of the fascinating folk who populate the proceedings. Kate Holland and Seth Duerr are delightfully vivid in the smaller roles of Miss Prossy and Lexy, fleshing out their particular follies most impressively. David Tillistrand conveys the contradictions of Morell's flawed but likable character expertly, and Danaher Dempsey is splendid as Marchbanks, half swoony naif, half competent (if reluctant) adult. Amanda Jones, one of the Cocteau's rising stars at the moment, is a very appealing Candida, though she never quite convinced me she was 35 years old, as her character claims to be (she seems much closer to Marchbanks's age). And Angus Hepburn, who gave us a superlative Doolittle last season, comes close to once again stealing the show as Burgess; I found myself laughing long and hard at most of his line-readings, especially in the final scene.
It's all performed on an elegant set designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge; Cocteau regulars will be surprised to see the stage so transformed, with a lush hardwood floor in three levels hiding its normally pronounced rake. Joel Moritz's lighting provides gentle atmospheric touches throughout.
Halberstam probably should have exercised some restraint in his detailed program note—I think he's telling his audience too much about what the play means to him, when he ought to be letting his production speak for itself. (I suggest you wait until after you've seen the play before reading it.) That quibble aside, Jean Cocteau is giving us a lovely Candida, one whose glow can warm us on these cold winter nights.