Shaw's 'Tell' a Patchy Effort
by Charles Irsherwood
June 10, 1998
Robert Sean Leonard is the primary and more or less sufficient reason to see the Roundabout's "You Never Can Tell," a generally middling production of middling Shaw.
As the penniless and lovestruck young Valentine, he finds the poetry in Shaw's conception of a young man with one eye on his empty bankbook and another on the stars, and performs with a freshness and ease that breezes by the potholes of Shaw's sometimes strained comedy, some of which his fellow cast members, under Nicholas Martin's uneven direction, fall straight into.
The influence of Wilde was strong in this play, first performed in 1899, and its setup is an homage of sorts to "The Importance of Being Earnest," with that play's parentally deprived John Worthing turned into a brood of pater-less kids from Madeira visiting an English seaside resort with their free-thinking mama.
Valentine, a five-shilling dentist who hasn't a shilling to his name, falls in with the clan after extracting high-spirited young Dolly's tooth and being instantly bewitched by her more decorous elder sister, Gloria (Katie Finneran), in the first of the play's not infrequent contrivances. But Gloria has been brought up to shun the blandishments of romance, and in the play's most delightful scene, played with unerring comic instincts by Leonard, Valentine woos her with an exuberant display of affected disgust at his own folly. Love is sentimental and silly, he admits, marriage an outrage, and yet here it is...
Meanwhile, as chance has it, Valentine's stuffy landlord Crampton (Simon Jones) turns out to be the children's missing father, separated from their mother (Helen Carey) some 18 years before when their unsympathetic union came to grief. When stiff-necked father and free-spirited family are brought together over lunch, some seashore fireworks ensue, as well as some Shavian discoursing on turn-of-the-century manners and morals.
The plot turns on Crampton's outraged reaction to his children's bold ways, and here Martin's direction goes astray. Although Crampton's dismay at the antics of his younger children is meant to come across as pompous, one is more inclined to sympathize, given the borderline obnoxiousness of their youthful exuberance.
Madcap is certainly not easy to play (particularly when it comes from Shaw's pen), but Kellner and Saxon Palmer as her brother Philip go about it with an ardency that's too heavy and cloying. In matching second-act harlequin ensembles, they seem like some sort of vaudeville act straining for laughs. They get them, to be sure, but at the expense of the play's delicacy.
The wistful, late-summer feeling that's nicely evoked by Allen Moyer's seaside hotel set, dominated by blues and whites and set against a rich backdrop of sky lit lovingly by Kirk Bookman, wobbles somewhat as the play strolls to its happy climax. Carey is nicely restrained as the mother who must finally accommodate her daughter's romantic attachment (and looks grand in Michael Krass' period gowns), and Charles Keating gives a quiet, graceful performance as the hotel waiter of infinite homespun wisdom. But Jere Shea, as the purposeful lawyer who helps settle the familial dispute, is in high burlesque mode, anticly arching his eyebrows and tossing his head.
Director Martin seems unsure how to meld the more broad aspects of this odd comedy with the more reflective passages, and so allows both to coexist, rather than trying to find a single, harmonious tone. The result is patchy, like a pleasant summer stroll marred by bursts of uncomfortable heat.