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The Washington Stage Guild’s You Never Can Tell is capped by a masquerade ball in which a deus ex machina sweeps in wearing a satin-lined cape and Groucho glasses, and it’s easy to fantasize about an even more surprising offstage masquerade: that behind the name George Bernard Shaw on the program was actually George S. Kaufman.
Nope, it was really Shaw who concocted this frothy comedy about an eccentric family (with the obligatory sole normalish member) and their adventures on holiday. Beneath the frivolity lurk the usual commentaries on class, sex, religion, and so forth, but less contemplative viewers won’t be tempted to doze when they’re played out. And if, as a neighboring audience member commented, Shaw generally “uses two words where one will do,” here he keeps it to a trim one and a half.
Shaw wrote You Never Can Tell as an attempt to woo audiences. His earliest plays, including Widower’s Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, were lauded more as think pieces than theatrical works. So by 1896 he’d finished the lighthearted You Never Can Tell. It’s set in a hotel in the English seaside town of Torbay—which Fawlty Towers fans might reasonably confuse with Torquay—where the Clandon family, recently relocated to London from Madeira, are enjoying themselves. Well, some of them are, anyway; at the play’s opening, youngest daughter Dolly (Tara Giordano) is having a tooth extracted. And her mother (Laura Giannarelli) has an even more onerous task ahead: meeting with lawyer friend M’Comas (Jeff Baker), who holds a crucial family secret.
Mrs. Clandon is a sort of Martha Stewart for the new century—that century being the 20th: She’s published such forward-thinking treatises as Twentieth Century Cooking, Twentieth Century Conduct, and Twentieth Century Children. She’s gifted with three of the latter: Besides Dolly, there are Dolly’s silly twin, Philip (Jason Stiles), and eldest child Gloria (Tricia McCauley). Gloria is cast in her mother’s image: liberated, intellectual, and earnest. Of course, she’s also a knockout—even in William Pucilowsky’s appropriately twee dresses—and of course she’s going to get knocked off that pedestal, in this case by her sister’s dentist, Valentine (Steven Carpenter).
The larger plot involves the father these offspring have never known. He’s not some fourth-act masked revelation; early in the second act, everyone knows he’s Fergus Crampton (Conrad Feininger), Valentine’s martinet of a landlord, a man so Spartan he wishes to forgo anesthesia for his toothache, yet whose idea of fatherhood involves not only duty, but also a surprising dose of sentiment.
Throw all these folks into a dining room, add a wise, salt-of-the-earth headwaiter (Bill Largess), his dim assistant (Michael Glenn), and some crack comic timing, and you’ve got the makings of a second-act luncheon that’s richly detailed, ingeniously expository, and charmingly zany. A special nod must be given to the production’s MVP, Glenn, who plays three roles over the course of nearly three hours, including the know-it-all mediator who fixes everything at the end.
About that end: It’s the weakest part of Shaw’s whimsical piece, as some characters—notably the cranky Crampton—wise up in ways that aren’t fully explained in the text. It’s as if Shaw knows he can’t slam his audience with wordy explorations of the vagaries of the human heart, so he takes a few shortcuts. Still, it’s a minor failing, especially given that, even as delightful as this piece is, its audiences will be ready to hit the streets after a few hours of brisk fun.
The play’s original readers didn’t fare as well as the lucky folks who attend WSG’s production will. Largess, as dramaturg, notes in the program that “its original production was abandoned when the cast and producer found they couldn’t make heads or tails of its humor, and gave it up as unproduceable.” Shaw was devastated by this outcome, and, Largess notes archly, “never again would he compromise in any way for ‘commercial’ reasons, a fact that some producers decry to this day.”
Not the WSG producers: This is the tightknit company’s 15th production of a Shaw play. Its enthusiasm for the trim-bearded genius/gasbag shows in the keenly performed love (and anti-love) scenes between Gloria and Valentine (who brags, “I learned to circumvent the women’s-rights woman before I was 23”), as well as in an early dialogue between Mrs. Clandon and M’Comas, aging radicals whose Twentieth Century polemics are looking pretty 19th. M’Comas, a self-proclaimed “philosophic radical,” laments, “Am I howled at? No, I am indulged, as an old fogy.”
But it all comes round again. Despite its early failure, You Never Can Tell became one of Shaw’s most-mounted plays during his lifetime. And, as that 21st-century Mrs. Clandon would say, it’s a good thing.CP