The interaction of social classes was endlessly fascinating to Bernard Shaw. As the world changed in the beginning of the 20th century, people who would never normally mix found themselves in alliances of one sort or another, and the rules that had guided the Empire for ages began to evaporate.
In “Pygmalion,” Shaw proposed that mastering the appropriate behavior and accent could propel one from guttersnipe to grand duchess. In “Misalliance,” he tracks the ways that wealth, however acquired, levels social barriers previously thought unassailable. At the same time, he chronicles the unrest of the classes marginalized by their lack of money and mobility and by the aristocracy, even as it became increasingly outdated — and potentially useless.
“Misalliance” is a talky play — a fact that one of the characters makes fun of late in the second act. But it’s talk with a purpose. Shaw has crammed the play full of ideas in the guise of characters, and it soon becomes clear that the titular misalliance is not merely the marriage of Hypatia Tarleton, daughter of the underwear magnate Jonn Tarleton in whose home the play takes place, but the interaction of England’s social classes in 1909 as well.
The plane is the only thing that crashes in the Pearl’s delightfully airborne “Misalliance”
The aristocracy is corrupt. Lord Summerhays is a notorious lecher who makes advances on Hypatia while his son, Bently, is engaged to her. Bentley is effete and ineffectual, “overbred, like one of those expensive little dogs,” as Mrs. Tarleton says.
The Tarletons, though propelled into the upper class by their wealth, are not at all comfortable with the aristocracy’s easy morality. The socialist, Gunner, meanwhile, is a monument to Shaw’s belief that Marxist revolutionary aims, afoot in that era, are doomed to failure.
As often happens in Shaw, the women fare best, largely because they are not hobbled by their illusions. Mrs. Tarleton brings her working-class common sense and affection to everything she does. Hypatia sees no reason not to be liberated, and the aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska, a Polish trapeze artist and acrobat, is willing to risk her life every day. While John Tarleton romanticizes himself as a man of ideas because he supports free libraries and thinks deep thoughts, his wife knows that a cup of tea and a bit of sympathy go much further in healing the wounds of the world — even if only one person at a time.
All of this is written with Shaw’s incisive wit and canny social criticism; the play engages on the page, but it really comes into its own on the stage. Fortunately, the Pearl Theater Company has given this play a dynamic production most notable for the clarity with which the cavalcade of ideas is woven into the storyline. When an airplane drops out of the sky while the Tarletons are at home, chaos ensues. The order is literally and metaphorically shaken up, and the game everyone has been playing falls apart, opening the door to the new, the unfamiliar, and the scary.
Under the direction of Jeff Steitzer, this talkfest becomes a bubbly comedy that stands in perfect, frothy counterpoint to the heavy and complicated ideas in the text. As performed by the attractive and capable company, the evening sails by pleasurably, providing extensive fodder for later thought and discussion.
In particular, Dan Daily captures the many levels of John Tarleton effortlessly, as does Sean McNall as the anarchist Gunner. Leslie Brown is wonderful, if a tad contemporary, as Mrs. Tarleton, and Steven Boyer is oddly endearing as the spoiled, immature, and cranky Bentley. Erika Rolfsrud is commanding as Lina, and even got exit applause for her well-delivered second act tirade.
This is a play that is rarely done in New York (a 1997 Roundabout production being a happily remembered exception) because it’s hard to do. Capturing the sense of fun within the serious subject matter is no small feat. That the Pearl, with its mission to focus on classics, has managed to do this so effectively makes this a notable production, and one well worth catching before it ends later this month.
The Pearl Theater Company
At City Center
131 W. 55th St.
Tue., Thu.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.
Wed., Sun, at 2:30 p.m.
through January 24