You Never Can Tell
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 20, 2011
The press materials for T. Schreiber Studio's delightful revival of Shaw's You Never Call Tell say that the play was "born out of bet: that Shaw could not write a seaside comedy, an extremely popular genre in 1890s England." I'm sure that's true; but as I watched this seldom-produced comedy last night, I kept being reminded of one of its more famous contemporaries, and I left thinking that this may well be Shaw's rebuttal to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
So many similarities! Both feature two pairs of charmingly callow and self-involved young people. Both feature a remarkable (and remarkably playable; a gift to mature actresses!) central matriarchal figure. Both feature servants who are obviously wiser and better adjusted than their so-called betters, along with traditional authority figures who are presented in delicious exaggerated fashion (Wilde gives us the country vicar Reverend Chausable, while Shaw inevitably chooses a lawyer, the supremely confident Bohun). And most importantly, both have their way twitting the foolish surface manners of high society. One of the characters here explains, with surprising bluntness:
If you lived in London, where the whole system is one of false good-fellowship, and you may know a man for twenty years without finding out that he hates you like poison, you would soon have your eyes opened. There we do unkind things in a kind way: we say bitter things in a sweet voice: we always give our friends chloroform when we tear them to pieces.
Earnest's love plot may hinge on a young man being descended from a handbag, but You Never Can Tell poses the problem in somewhat less outlandish fashion:
In a seaside resort, there's one thing you must have before anybody can afford to be seen going about with you; and that's a father, alive or dead.
Specifically, the three children of Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon—beautiful, intelligent, passionate Gloria, and her younger twin siblings, Dolly and Phil—do not know their father, not his whereabouts or even his name, for their mother whisked them away from him 18 years ago, to raise them on the island of Madeira. We meet the four Clandons in a fashionable seaside English town, where they befriend a handsome ne'er-do-well dentist called Valentine and then invite him to luncheon at their hotel. (It is Valentine who lectures Dolly and Phil on the ill effects of their fatherlessness, adding: "Am I to infer that you have omitted that indispensable part of your social equipment? Then I'm sorry to say that if you are going to stay here for any length of time, it will be impossible for me to accept your kind invitation to lunch.")
But Valentine falls in love upon first sight of Gloria, and he hasn't any money; so he does go to lunch with the Clandons. He brings along his landlord, the curmudgeonly Crampton, who, of course, turns out to be the Clandons' father. Shaw spends the rest of the play sorting out affairs between Crampton and his independent-minded wife, and delivering a splendidly elegant and erudite turn on the traditional boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl plot as he charts the course of Gloria and Valentine's love affair in a day that is, as Lady Bracknell herself says in a different context, fraught with incident.
You Never Can Tell is part light-hearted satire, part meaningful social commentary (on the class system, equality for women, and a number of other worthwhile subjects), and part sweet-natured love story: Valentine and Gloria are the couple I most like to root for in all of Shaw's canon, I think. It's a very funny play, and very smart, and although there are a couple of jarring moments in the dialogue (as when Valentine says that Crampton is "rich as a Jew"), it's thoroughly modern and no less pertinent than it was when it was written.
Robert Verlaque provides a charming staging for the Studio, full of whimsy and good humor. He's added some welcome musical touches—a transition between scenes in the second half features Phil leading a chorus of servants in a ditty on the ukulele, and there's a lovely danced finale as well. Chris Minard's sets are suitably lush, and Steven Daniels's costumes are plentiful and opulent as required. Andy Cohen's sound design conjures the sea and a fancy dress ball as needed. Dialect coach Page Clements's work with the cast is, as always, expert.
The cast shines; this is a play that offers lots of opportunities to its players, and we are not let down here. Schreiber veteran Peter Judd has perhaps the best of it as the wise old waiter Walter, the only major character in the story who truly understands himself and the world around him. Lucy Avery Brooke is fine as the formidable Mrs. Clandon, while Laurence Cantor amuses as her sour-puss of a husband, Mr. Crampton. Noelle P. Wilson and Seth James are engagingly effervescent as Dolly and Phil. Edwin Sean Patterson makes much of his cameo as the know-it-all lawyer Bohun. And as the play's central couple, Jessica Osborne and Lowell Byers are superb: her Gloria is proud and thoughtful and in every way a suitable object of worship for his outsized insouciant.
T. Schreiber Studio concludes its 41st season with this production, and as ever the work is sparkling, clear, and nourishing. This is the perfect comedy to usher in the long-awaited summer here in NYC.