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George Bernard Shaw managed to demolish pretty much every pillar of his staid old society by the time he died, in 1950—he satirized both religious and industrialist fervor in Major Barbara, took swipes at class consciousness in Pygmalion and the medical profession in The Doctor’s Dilemma, and mocked cherished English conventions about justice, empire, and the military in Too True to Be Good. So forgive him if The Philanderer, with its relatively narrow focus on the prison of Victorian marriage, seems a little slender; it was an early effort, and he was just warming up.

His trademark outrage—that iconoclast’s disdain for hypocrisy that inspired his sharpest wit—is fully in evidence, though, and it carries the usual charge even when the Washington Stage Guild’s basically brisk and funny production gets bogged down in its own arguments. But then this is a play of plots within plots, devices within devices—a comic screed that can insist, on the one hand, that there’s no point in forcing conservative social roles on liberal-minded adults and then acknowledge, on the other, that there’s something emotionally crippled about the commitment-phobe at its center. It’s littered with references to the freethinking devotees of “Ibsenism” and “the New Woman,” contemptuous of intellectual faddishness and yet enthusiastic about the century-ending clash that pitted those straightforward new ideas against the hypocritical old order. And it’s concerned, if you please, with one woman who fully comprehends the implications of being a man’s social equal and another who likes the idea but can’t quite get her head around the responsibilities it entails. An Oxford debating society might have trouble parsing the discussion.

The philanderer himself is Leonard Charteris (an agreeably relaxed Jason Stiles), who complains archly at one point that “the fickleness of women I love is only equaled by the infernal constancy of the women who love me.” He’s the kind of well-mannered cad, in other words, who, having wooed and won, prefers to move on to woo another woman another day.

As the play opens, he’s getting cozy with the widowed Grace Tranfield (Kathleen Coons), who’s understandably cross when she discovers how doggedly his previous conquest, Julia Craven (a rather too excitable Tricia McCauley), is still pursuing Charteris despite his best efforts to dump her. Coons’ coolly collected Grace—a smart cookie, and one of those modern-minded late Victorians who found a rallying point in Ibsen’s stage portraits of strong women—soon announces that she’ll have Charteris only on her terms, which don’t allow for emotionally volatile exes who storm a rival’s drawing room to stage unpleasant scenes. Vexed—he was planning to pop the question to Grace not least because it would confront Julia with how entirely he’s over her—Charteris hatches a plan to transfer his former flame’s ardor to another. She, being a halfhearted New Woman wannabe still trapped by her training in old-fashioned feminine wiles, resists, but not in the sensible way that might actually win Charteris back.

There’s lots to enjoy here, clearly, and not only among the central threesome. There are times, in fact, when their verbal jousts get eclipsed by the antics of the veteran hands who play the ladies’ fathers: Conrad Feininger is a red-faced, popeyed stitch as that epitome of English establishmentarianism, the crusty colonel—he makes two explosively funny sentences of an outraged tut-tut—and Bill Hamlin exploits a more urbane and no less appealing brand of raised-eyebrow comedy in the character of a theater critic who knows the score but keeps the knowledge closely guarded. (“I am now going to speak as a man of the world,” he says each time he’s pressed, warning everyone that there will shortly be a socially unacceptable observation about life’s untidy realities.)

Steven Carpenter, too, steals scenes, as the effete physician toward whom Charteris steers Julia. A scene in which the doctor discovers a humiliating dilemma in the pages of a medical journal could be the ur-text of the clever-slapstick sitcom, and the high point of the evening (just to hint at Shaw’s knack for building comic rhythms) may well be Carpenter’s meekly celebratory “Hurrah!” at a crucial moment near the play’s end.

Near its original end, that is. Shaw rewrote The Philanderer’s conclusion before the first production, apparently fearing that audiences would balk at its all-too-honest picture of bored marrieds trapped by old-style divorce laws; in his rather more melodramatic revision, he merely hinted at what he’d spelled out before—the costs to a woman’s dignity of courtship and marriage customs that had all the heart and honesty of a horse-trading session. For this production, Stage Guild artistic director John MacDonald offers up both endings, playing the discarded original (which takes place four years after the main action) on the heels of the one performed in Shaw’s day.

It’s a mixed success, this treatment. It’s academically interesting, sure, and it even sheds a little light on the playwright’s attitudes about the title character (who’s apparently a bit of a Shavian self-portrait): The original’s philanderer is a whit less heartless, a degree more changed at the finale than the unredeemed revision Charteris, who probably went down easier with an audience that would have seen him as unredeemable anyway. So tacking on the first-draft conclusion creates a more complicated central character, giving the play a trifle more narrative arc.

The added complexity, though, fits uneasily in this production. Perhaps because the play’s marital maneuverings would seem absurd in any period but the fin-de-siècle, MacDonald and his cast have opted for the brittleness and clipped artificiality of drawing-room comedy; they emphasize the wit and poise (or lack thereof) of The Philanderer’s characters, skittering their way through the lines and stopping only infrequently to notice the humanity and individuality of the people who utter them.

The problem is greatest where it matters most: We’re meant to empathize with, even to pity, Julia, but in this production, McCauley never makes her more than the jealous, transparently manipulative termagant Charteris accuses her of being. Whether that’s the indirect product of directorial dictate or a simple actorial limitation, it tips the balance of audience sympathy toward that self-involved gentleman—and he, as the redoubtable Grace points out in the last line of the revised ending, is nobody’s idea of a hero. CP