nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 15, 2009
The Philanderer is one of Shaw's less well-known, early plays; he published it with Widowers' Houses and Mrs. Warren's Profession in the volume Plays Unpleasant, suggesting he viewed it as a piece of socially conscious satire. It is, sort of; the subtitle he affixed to it ("A topical comedy") feels more apt, though, because essentially The Philanderer is a slightly ironic response to the craze for Ibsen among the British intelligentsia in the 1890s, and when Shaw deflates the pretensions of "new women" in the Nora/Hedda mold and the men who supposedly love them, the play reaches its funniest heights.
At the center of the story is The Ibsen Club, a (presumably) fictional establishment in London whose members live life as the great Norwegian playwright seems to dictate. (Presiding over the scenes set in the Club is a wonderfully jowly painting of Ibsen, a great touch on the part of set designer David Fuller.) The title character is Leonard Charteris, who describes himself frequently as a philanderer though in fact there are only two women receiving his attentions as far as we know. They are Grace Tranfield, a widow, and Julia Craven, a spoiled young woman used to getting her way. Grace is the kind of independent lady of whom Ibsen would have likely approved, while Julia is the more old-fashioned type who defines herself in terms of a (potential) husband. When we meet Leonard, he is in fact at Mrs. Tranfield's flat, and they are in the midst of a some hot-and-heavy lovemaking (well, as hot and heavy as the Victorian Shaw allows). They are interrupted by Julia's arrival at the flat (it's never clear how she knows that she will find Leonard here). It appears at this point that the arc of the play will be the battle between these two ladies for the heart and soul of the eponymous Leonard. But in fact Shaw shifts gears, and ultimately it is the struggle of each of these women to find her true self that finally occupies the piece.
Shaw mixes things up with some additional characters. Both Julia and Grace's fathers arrive on the scene, the former a somewhat stuffy colonel as spoiled as his daughter, the latter a more free-thinking and progressive critic. We also meet Sylvia, Julia's younger sister, who takes the ideas of the Ibsen Club so seriously that she actually dresses in men's breeches and boots. And there's a rival for Julia's affections in Dr. Paramore, who has been treating Colonel Craven for a liver condition that may or may not be real. (Shaw gets in some funny and still timely digs about the methods of scientists in his depiction of Paramore.)
The resulting play is witty and smart, as you'd expect, though also lacking a certain clarity and internal logic as it tries to balance the "modern" ideas of its young people with the natural prudish reticence of its author. Director Leah Bonvissuto gives us an enjoyable if unsteady realization of the play in this production at Theater Ten Ten. To perhaps lessen the innate talkiness of Shaw's work, she has her actors in near constant motion, especially Julian Stetkevych as Leonard, who bounces about the rooms he's in like a tennis ball. This is a distraction. Also problematic are the relative ages of some of her actors. Stetkevych's Leonard appears to be a callow 20-something while the script calls for him to be in his mid-30s; in order for his character to make sense, he needs to seem older than both Grace and Julia, but instead he comes across as Julia's contemporary while Anne Gill's Grace seems several years his senior. He feels more like an Algernon Moncrieff than a Henry Higgins, and I think the latter model would be more appropriate.
Tatiana Gomberg's Julia is a very funny creation, all petulance and wile. The supporting players include Ten Ten stalwart Greg Horton as Colonel Craven and newcomer Barrie Kreinik, who makes a strong impression as Julia's daring sister Sylvia. Rounding out the cast are Mickey Ryan as the hapless Paramore and Duncan Hazard as Grace's father. Assistant director Shauna Horn has a cameo as the page at the Ibsen Club.
Fuller utilizes a few pieces of elegant furniture in ingenious ways to create three different and plausible rooms. Mira Veikley's costumes do a good job of evoking the period, while Sherrice Kelly's lighting is similarly appropriate.
The Philanderer is not the kind of play that will be receiving a big Broadway revival anytime soon, which is why it's terrific that a company like Theater Ten Ten should trot it out to show it to us. It's an interesting selection from Shaw's extensive oeuvre and it makes for an entertaining and sometimes illuminating evening in this revival.