The acting: dynamic. The direction: precise. The costumes: gorgeous. The set: detailed. The story: enticing. Irish Rep has a bona fide hit on their hands with George Bernard Shaw’s MAN AND SUPERMAN, easily the best production I’ve seen in a long, long time. For a play written in 1903, this is a more relevant and thought-provoking piece than many modern comedies.
The play opens in London, 1905, at the study of Roebuck Ramsden (Brian Murray). We discover that both Ramsden and the younger Jack (Max Gordon Moore) have been appointed the legal guardians of Ann (Janie Brookshire). Meanwhile, Jack’s best friend Octavius (Will Bradley) is hopelessly in love with Ann, who fancies Jack. Also thrown into the shuffle are Ocatvius’s sister Violet (Margaret Loesser Robinson) who is in love with an American named Hector (Zachary Spicer) plus Ann’s mother Mrs. Whitefield (Laurie Kennedy) who knows her onerous daughter will eventually get her way.
If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. The cast shifts in and out of plotlines with deep-seated clarity and unyielding fervor. There’s so much to love about the first scene alone. The actors’ vocal cadences and uber-specific physical choices are the marks of true professionals. The way Jack and Octavius share a chair is telling of the tight bond between two best friends. The way Jack laughs after delivering the 'zinger' “perhaps more advanced in years, Polonious” perfectly displays a whimsical sense of humor about life. The way Octavius leans on Ramsden as if he‘s his grandfather shows a yearning for maturity. The way Jack leans on the wall demonstrates absolute nonchalance regarding circumstances about which everyone else is on edge. Every actor, throughout the whole play, makes specific choices that make their characters come to life in the richest, liveliest ways. Even their exit lines (like Ramsden’s “I’ll be back in a moment”) garner reactions from the audience because they’re so filled.
A compliment to the actors is also a compliment to director David Staller for meticulously carving out a structure to this 2 hour-45 minute comedy. The blocking is effective in telling a clear story and the actors never stay in one place too long. This director also knows the importance of action: a play isn’t merely about the dialogue on the page. Watch as Jack and Octavius eat grapes while discussing the women in their lives. This could easily be 2012, with two men drinking beers and discussing the girls they want to hook up with. These characters are constantly doing things, the things they would do in life -- an enormously practical way to enhance the realism.
Scene Two takes us to Richmond, the avenue to Mrs. Whitefield‘s house (watch James Noone‘s set design really come to life here: a desk beguilingly becomes an automobile). Jack decides to escape the pressure of love by heading to Spain with his driver Straker (Brian Sgambati). This leads us to Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond) who holds up motorcars to share the wealth with everyone. The delights and charms found in the final scene of Act One remind me so much of Broadway's recent Brief Encounter. The gentle music. The delicate lighting. The simple, calm storytelling. Act One: a homerun.
The opening scene of Act Two is the only one which oddly takes me too far away from the forward-moving plot. Taking place in Hell, it’s seemingly artsy and symbolic but I prefer the exchanges which occur on Earth. The Hell scene feels like a philosophical debate better suited for an essay than the stage, while in other scenes the philosophies of the characters come out naturally as they engage with each other. Sitting around and talking in a generic-looking Hell (five white chairs, a clear/gray curtain) is not as riveting. Also, for a scene taking place in Hell, the Devil (Hammond again) plays a strikingly small role. “This is extremely abstract,” says Ramsden. I agree. It’s also the weakest scene.
The play gets back on track with the remaining scenes… and I mean, really back on track. The themes the actors tackle are so insightful that at times I couldn’t help but stop taking notes and think about my life -- topics like money vs. love, how quickly men get tired of things, how to cope with unrequited love, and most eloquent of all: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” The writing, the acting and the directing of these final two scenes are the definition of focused.
We also meet the play’s final character in the last scene: Hector’s father Malone (Paul O’Brien). I saw a production a week ago in which a character entered half-way through the play and left no impression. Here, a character enters at the bitter end and it works just fine. It works because O’Brien’s Malone is a man with opinions, a man who cares about the world around him and a man who has a lot at stake. O’Brien plays the total opposite of indifference and admirably stands his ground in his one scene.
As everyone’s story wraps up, the game cast is fiercer than ever. In a moment of pure, unadulterated masculinity, Spicer’s Hector holds onto his wife for dear life as he decides to be a man over a son. It’s a haunting transformation and just one of many, many, many shining moments from Zachary Spicer. What a brilliant actor.
But not just Spicer. Everyone! They’re all brilliant. Janie Brookshire is fantastic as a woman who knows what she wants and who won't accept reality until her destiny is fulfilled. Margaret Robinson is amusingly opinionated and is particularly strong in her scenes with O’Brien as she entices him to see her way. Jonathan Hammond is magnetic as Mendoza, especially while delivering a hilarious poem about his lover Louisa. Will Bradley is neurotically disarming -- one of the best moments of the play (a dialogue between Ann and Octavius) comments on how to move forward when you want something so bad but can’t have it. Bradley’s Octavius realizes the beauty of the broken heart, something rarely touched upon in plays. And not enough can be said about Max Gordon Moore as Jack. It’s a commanding, sexy, vibrant performance that is absolutely, whole-heartedly, spot-on perfect. Seriously, give Max Gordon Moore an award. Something. Anything.
Irish Rep’s MAN AND SUPERMAN should be a homework assignment for New York actors: a lesson in listening to fellow cast members, in understanding the stakes, in being fully invested in the world of the play from start to finish. My sincere congratulations to everyone involved in this marvelous production.