With Misalliance , American Players Theatre proves that George Bernard Shaw's brand of social satire still has teeth. The play feels fresh and relevant even though its author penned it nearly a century ago. As Shaw plunges us into the world of aristocrats and self-made merchants in Edwardian England, he layers the light comedy of couplings and uncouplings with more pointed insights about women, the working class and more.
The blustery but benevolent John Tarleton, at whose country home the action takes place, is the king of Tarleton's Underwear. Though drawing his fortune from undergarments, he fancies himself a man of ideas. His wife, a former shopgirl, comes from more modest means. Their children are the somewhat lazy Johnny and Hypatia. Hypatia in particular rages against the confines of respectable affluence. "I want to be an active verb!" she proclaims triumphantly, yet she takes no real action to improve her life. And while she rails against bourgeois mores, she's ready to let those same social rules protect her when her reputation is impugned.
Played full-throttle by Carrie Coon, Hypatia is willful, immature and just a tad annoying. Hoping that adventure will fall from the sky, she unexpectedly gets her wish when a plane crashes into the greenhouse at the end of the first act. (The crash is handled entirely by a marvelous and very convincing sound design by Josh Schmidt.) The occupants of that plane - the dashing Joey Percival and the Polish acrobat Lina Szczepanowska - profoundly shake up the order of things.
If Hypatia is a caged bird fluttering against the bars in her pastel frock and pink lace-up boots, Lina (Tracy Michelle Arnold), with her thick Slavic accent, trousers and black knee-high boots, is a different creature altogether. Part of a proud family of acrobats who make it a point to risk their lives, Lina rejects convention. She delivers a blistering speech in which she asserts her independence: "I am an honest woman: I earn my living. I am a free woman: I live in my own house...I am unbought."
Just as Hypatia and Lina reflect different versions of womanhood, so do the male characters reveal different conceptions of manhood. Johnny is underrated intellectually and as a businessman, but he boasts a strong, healthy body; while Bentley Summerhays, Hypatia's fiancé and the son of a Lord, is described as "overbred, like one of those expensive little dogs."
Shaw's rich script manages to be both trenchant and truly funny - and he wasn't above laughing at himself, lobbing a few choice zingers at the world of the theater. APT brings Misalliance to the stage in rollicking form and with a solid ensemble directed by John Langs. While there's not a weak link in this bunch, Jonathan Smoots as Mr. Tarleton, Brian Mani as Lord Summerhays and Arnold as Lina are especially strong.
One of the highlights of the year in local theater so far, Misalliance delivers laughs but also ideas worth chewing on long after the applause has ended.