American Players Theatre's interpretation definitely goes for laughs, even if it means being a little hammy at times.
Although George Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer was one of his three Plays Unpleasant, he also subtitled it "A Topical Comedy." Let that be a tip-off to the somewhat split identity of this 1898 play.
By "plays unpleasant," Shaw meant plays written not merely to amuse, but to provoke discussion of social issues. "The Philanderer" takes on the changing status of women, the value of marriage, vivisection and more -- yet it's also highly entertaining.
Under the direction of Kenneth Albers, American Players Theatre's interpretation definitely goes for laughs, even if it means being a little hammy at times.
Local favorite Jim DeVita plays Leonard Charteris, a "famous Ibsenist philosopher" who spends more time womanizing than philosophizing. Padding about in a purple velvet jacket, Charteris delights in playing the field. As the show begins, he's wooing the young widow Grace Tranfield (Colleen Madden) even though he hasn't broken it off yet with Julia Craven.
In that opening scene, Charteris and Grace engage in a playful, private tango with a touch of goofy awkwardness (I was reminded of Elaine's awkward dance moves in "Seinfeld"). It's a fun little moment that sets the tone for the rest of the show.
While Grace is generally reserved, Julia is a needy force of nature. While each wants to be an "advanced woman" in the parlance of the day -- not needing marriage, prepared to be the independent equal of a man -- Julia takes on and casts off such ideas as it suits her. And when there's a rival for her affections, Julia is ready for battle.
As Julia, Catherine Lynn Davis (the wife of director Albers) is comically over-the-top: she wheedles and cajoles, she rages, she shakes her fists and claims she's going mad. Sometimes it's genuine emotion; at other times, it's pure calculation on Julia's part. Davis makes Julia a petite ball of fury.
Julia's younger sister, Sylvia (Susan Shunk), is her polar opposite. While Julia is an emotional creature dolled up in hot pink and fussy hats, Sylvia is self-consciously masculine. In her newsboy cap and trousers, Sylvia just wants to be one the chaps.
Together, Julia, Sylvia and Grace offer competing versions of modern womanhood. Shaw explored similar turf in plays like Misalliance, which APT produced two seasons ago.
While Misalliance seemed a bit meatier to me, "The Philanderer" is still appealing. James Ridge has a likeably silly turn as Dr. Paramore, who seeks to carve out an identity in the medical world by naming a liver disease after himself.
Anne Murphy's costume designs work well at reinforcing the essential nature of the characters: loud, extreme Julia; mannish Sylvia; and coolly feminine Grace. Joe Cerqua's sound design includes little musical flourishes in some spots that punctuate the dialogue in a manner akin to silent film accompaniment.
While The Philanderer is indeed topical comedy, it puts the accent firmly on the latter, making for a frothy and fun summer fare.