So far, the best reason to hit up the Shaw Festival this summer is to see Thom Marriott bare all his comedic talents as underwear magnate John Tarleton in Bernard Shaw's Misalliance. Indeed, it's an unmissable performance.
In Marriott's hands, Tarleton, a self-made millionaire, comes off as one of Shaw's most inspired blowhards. In a jocular Northern English accent and under a Jay Leno-esque wig, this vain womanizer goes on about his "superabundance of vitality" in front of his embarrassed children and is constantly dropping the names of authors he's read to either instruct or impress. "Read Ibsen. Read Chesterton. Read Pepys' diary."
Marriott makes him seem a hilarious cross between fictional TV adman Don Draper and the stranger-than-fiction Donald Trump as he spins a load of nonsense about what he believes he sells – not undergarments, but ideas: "A man like any other man. And beneath that coat and trousers a human soul. Tarleton's Underwear!"
Misalliance takes place in Tarleton's home and its loose plot concerns his daughter Hypatia (Krista Colosimo) and the unravelling of her ambivalent engagement to Bentley Summerhays (Ben Sanders), the highly intelligent and even more highly irritating son of Lord Summerhays (Peter Krantz, in full jowl-jiggling mode).
As it turns out, Hypatia has inherited some of her father's "superabundant vitality." She's enraptured both Summerhays fils and père, and soon captures the attention of a young pilot named Joey (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) who crashes his plane into the roof of Tarleton's house.
That bizarre crash adds an element of absurdism to a play that Shaw otherwise described as "a debate in one sitting" (though here, in fact, it is broken up by an intermission). Joey's passenger, a free-thinking, butt-kicking Polish acrobat named Lina, is the second brilliant comic creation in the play, performed with panache by Tara Rosling in an asymmetrical platinum blonde wig.
Director Eda Holmes has moved the play from 1909 to the 1960s, which is a fine idea from a design standpoint, but she should have left the text unaltered. Clumsily inserted references to hi-fis and the like clash entirely with the characters' awe at seeing an airplane, not to mention the turn-of-the-century ideas Shaw is juggling about marriage, business and democracy. (Also, "make love" has an entirely different meaning in each of those eras.)
Krantz's intermittently inspired Lord Summerhays gets what may be one of the best Shavian zingers of the evening: "Democracy reads well, but it doesn't act well – like some people's plays." Similar accusations are frequently levelled at Shaw's plays, of course, but Misalliance is actually a delight on its feet. Talky though it may be, it whizzes by here when channelled through Marriott, rising young Shaw stars Bogert-O'Brien and Colosimo, and Catherine McGregor as Tarleton's kind, long-suffering wife.
As with her production of One Touch of Venus a few years back, however, Holmes demonstrates a certain heavy-handed sense of comedy. An opening bit of business involving Tarleton's son Johnny chasing a fly around the house is painfully unfunny, while in Sanders's most hysterical moments as Bentley and the entirety of Craig Pike's performance as a mysterious young man who arrives at Tarleton's house with a gun, Holmes seems to find something amusing in vocal inflections that came across to me as the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
But Marriot's Tarleton is simply a force to be reckoned with – whether talking up his own powers with the ladies, talking down a mad gunman, or poignantly grappling with the discovery that his daughter is following in his own footsteps.
Bernard Shaw may be absent from the Shaw Festival's biggest stage this year, but the established stable of actors here still makes the case that, in his best plays at least, his writing can still be smart and sharp.
Misalliance runs at Shaw's Royal George Theatre until Oct. 27.
- Written by Bernard Shaw
- Directed by Eda Holmes
- Starring Thom Marriott and Krista Colosimo
- At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- Three stars