After a couple of years of being corralled in a corner like an embarrassingly garrulous grand-uncle, the one impossible to get out of a conversation with, Bernard Shaw is back again at centre stage at the Shaw Festival.
The Philanderer, penned in 1893 and only Shaw's second play, is an odd choice for the playwright's return to the main Festival Theatre after two seasons blathering away in the B-houses. Director Lisa Peterson injects playfulness and even a frisson or two of genuine sex into the proceedings, but despite her best efforts, you may still find yourself yawning and wondering when the old bore is going to get to the darn point.
Gord Rand stars as Leonard Charteris, the charmingly exasperating philanderer of the title, who has an aversion to commitment that he dresses up as a disdain for the "degrading bargain" that is marriage. "Advanced people form charming friendships: Conventional people marry," he explains to his lovers, but also to the audience – with whom he frequently flirts through the fourth wall in Peterson's production.
Naturally, Charteris's proto-polyamorous philosophy is less neat in practice than in theory and leads to rather complicated situations like the one he finds himself in during the opening scene – making love to winsome widow Grace Tranfield (Marla McLean) in her drawing room, only to be interrupted by an ex-lover named Julia Craven (Moya O'Connell) who is unwilling to acknowledge the prefix.
Having swiftly set up this steamy situation – and Rand, McLean and O'Connell do all bring it to a boil – Shaw loses interest in advancing it in the second and third acts set in the pseudo-progressive Ibsen Club, where a condition of membership is to either be a manly woman or a womanly man. (As designed in emerald hues by Sue LePage, the club seems more inspired by the oeuvre of L. Frank Baum.)
Grace's father (Michael Ball) and Julia's father (Ric Reid) are on hand here to burlesque British society's mainstream Victorian values; Dr. Percival Paramore (Jeff Meadows) enters the scene to satirize the medical profession and provide an alternative paramour for Julia; and Julia's sister (the electric Harveen Sandhu) trots on to represent the New Woman in all her pants-wearing, anti-vivisectionist glory.
The action in these unfocused scenes in the Ibsen Club either goes off on tangents from the triangle that really interests audiences, or simply spins in circles; Peterson's decision to eliminate an intermission between these acts, her one major misstep, only makes it seem more interminable.
St. John Ervine, Shaw's first major biographer, called The Philanderer "his worst play," a not uncommon opinion well into the 1970s. Peterson, an otherwise ardent admirer of Shaw's, confesses in her director's note that she never loved the play – but got excited when asked to look at the original final act that Shaw had penned and then discarded after being advised to burn it.
It's this fourth act – set four years after what came before – that Peterson really bites into as a director. While the Shaw Festival has staged this rediscovered scene in the past, it has usually been appended to the end. Here, instead, it is pasted over the originally staged one (a route Vancouver's Arts Club first followed in 2011).
But that doesn't mean that Peterson leaves the alteration unacknowledged; instead, she makes the daring decision to stage the final scene in smoking ruins, as if the production, not just the script, were rescued from the fire.
This is just one example of Peterson's confident approach to the material. Elsewhere, she adds in witty surtitles and songs, works with sound designer Mark Bennett to underline melodramatic moments rather than brush over them, and encouraging her younger actors in particular to really open up the walls of this drawing-room comedy and let fresh air in. (This has the unintended consequence of making Ball and Reid, not just their characters, seem like they come from an older, fustier era.)
The Shaw Festival has too many directors who respect the festival's mandate playwrights, and not enough who love them like Peterson obviously does. In the end, however, it's hard to really get all that excited about a lengthy debate about how absurd divorce laws (now long defunct) were, the driving force of the restored act. What remains relevant is the unresolvable distance between what Charteris and Craven want – a gap the former, rather unfairly, sums up like this: "I am an intellectual man with the smallest possible allowance of emotion. You are an emotional woman, with the smallest possible allowance of intellect."
That line, I think, shows the limits of Shaw's thinking about the pleasures and perils of philandering, and the limits of pleasures of The Philanderer, too.