It’s tempting to say that what the theater needs now is less Neil Simon and more George Bernard Shaw. Tempting, but also probably inaccurate. Shaw’s rapier wit, all the sharper because it’s to a purpose rather than for its own sake, is enthralling when done well, but a mediocre performance can make it feel talky even for a medium mostly constructed of dialogue, particularly for contemporary audiences unused to lengthy four-act plays.
Fortunately, Jonathan Moscone’s California Shakespeare Theater production of Man and Superman is done very well indeed. Trimmed to a manageable three hours or so, the dialogue sparkles, and the cast is mostly superb.
Annie Smart’s set frames tasteful period furniture with high-yellow abstract curves that slightly suggest musical notation, with versatile painted screens to capture the view. A bald-headed bust of patriarch Roebuck Ramsden doubles cleverly as an entry pillar to the estate. Anna R. Oliver’s elegant Edwardian costumes immediately establish not only time and place but class — the “idle rich class,” as protagonist Jack Tanner would have it.
The play takes the form of a comedy of manners in the sense of satirizing the pretensions of polite society, but goes much deeper than that, skewering sanctimonious morality in no uncertain terms. The terms are explained by the passionate Jack, a young man of privilege and a self-styled anarchist obsessed with exposing moral hypocrisy. He goes into his ideas at such length that today he would doubtless have a PowerPoint presentation at the ready, and indeed the published play is accompanied with the full text of Jack’s own incendiary pamphlet, The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion. For that reason this is more properly an “idea play,” because it spends more time on philosophical debate than on the plot per se.
The story itself might be regarded as a romantic comedy that strains against its nature at every turn. Love and marriage are regarded with fatalistic resignation by Jack, who sees them as things against which he can struggle for independence, but to which he ultimately must succumb out of Darwinian necessity. And besides, it’s the women who really call the shots.
As Ann Whitefield, Susannah Livingston leaves little doubt that she’s entirely in control while insisting innocently that she’s nothing of the kind, with an impish air of mischief radiating through her ladylike veneer. Married in secret so as not to endanger her source of income, Delia MacDougall’s savvy, self-assured Violet has the men around her eating out of her hand, with a keen eye for social propriety and fiscal calculation. Nancy Carlin is a model of civilized resignation as Ann’s long-suffering mother.
Elijah Alexander brings an excellent admixture of cockiness and conviction to the role of Jack as well as his ancestor Don Juan. As his strait-laced old school chum Octavius “Tavi” Robinson, Ben Livingston makes a good-humored straight man for Jack and becomes a lovesick puppy around Ann.
L. Peter Callender is a delight as both stodgy, sputtering Ramsden and the commander’s statue from the Don Juan tale turned boisterous epicurean in the afterlife. As chauffeur Henry Straker, Dan Hiatt shows an employee’s good manners winning out over a quiet sense of proletarian superiority. (Quiet, that is, until Jack explains: “This chap has been educated. What’s more, he knows that we haven’t.”) Andy Murray is a hilariously romantic bandit leader, presiding over a group of brigands who spend most of their time debating political theory, and a suave and indulgent Devil.
Often cut from this play and sometimes staged by itself, the long, self-contained third-act scene Don Juan in Hell abruptly shifts to the afterlife for a philosophical debate between Don Juan and the Devil. It’s here that the Superman of the title is brought up in an almost parenthetical reference to the philosophy of Nietzsche. There’s a reason Plato’s dialogues aren’t often staged as plays, and the arguments and counterarguments do drag on. But Moscone’s inventive staging keeps things lively, with the Devil as a lounge lizard in a red smoking jacket, attended by leather cabana boys. Though the rest of the play is in period dress, Hell is a timeless place where we can see Doña Ana (Susannah Livingston again, naturally) drinking a Tab.
Moscone adds a number of amusing touches such as characters lip-synching to Mozart’s Don Giovanni during scene changes, and a vintage motorcar fleeing the scene in miniature. But even the more extravagant touches work with Shaw’s own humor, never against it, and it all makes for a sumptuously satisfying, beautifully realized comedy that talks up to you rather than down.
As one audience member was overheard to say during intermission: “Now I know where every episode of Frasier came from.”