You Can Never Tell
Supercalifragilistic scene stealer Greg Matthew Anderson is one of the many entertaining ingredients infused in the rich broth that is Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's production of "You Can Never Tell," running at the Greenhouse Theater Center through early January 2013. A response to Oscar Wilde's legendary farce "The Importance of Being Earnest," playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote "Tell," according to press materials, in part because he found Wilde's work "lacking in humanity."
Well there's no humanity lacking in this terrific mounting of one of Shaw's lesser-known pieces. It is hard to believe that that the playwright pulled the original incarnation, which premiered at the Strand Theatre in 1899 London, after just six performances, and that the work has not been seen in Chicago since a 1982 production at the Court Theatre.
The work is so timely and alive with its insights into the dubious choices facing modern womanhood (love versus independent intellect -- as though never the twain shall meet), so reflective of the war games that comprise courtship, it's impossible to imagine a theatergoer alienated by the ripe dialogue and slapstick comedy which buttress a rather serious examination of Western culture at the turn of the 20th century.
I earned a Master's Degree in English Literature in 2007 and have been working as a theater critic on behalf of EDGE since early 2009, yet astonishingly Remy Bumppo's "You Can Never Tell" is my first Shaw. I never availed myself of the opportunity to read "Pygmalion," the source material for famed Broadway musical, "My Fair Lady." It is now entirely clear that I must do penance for my shameful lack of intellectual curiosity where the playwright is concerned because if "Tell," one of his more undiscovered works is this layered and hilarious, I have grossly cheated myself.
I may also be inclined to feel a new excitement about the canon of Shaw because Remy Bumppo's interpretation of "You Can Never Tell" is just so damned ingratiating. I return to Greg Matthew Anderson, an artistic associate at the Company and a Jeff nominee for his brilliant work earlier this year in "Chesapeake," a demanding one-man show that I was privileged to audit in the spring.
In this production, Anderson plays hack dentist and determined ladies' man Valentine, the linchpin around whom a most riotous family reunion occurs. It seems almost unfair to single out the actor from a cast list that is bursting with talent, but Anderson's comedic timing is literally flawless. Every member of a seasoned press night opening audience sat on the edge of his or her seat, awaiting the next bon mot to tumble forth.
As directed by another Remy Bumppo artistic associate, Shawn Douglass, "You Can Never Tell" is a graceful affair that incorporates lovely costume design by Emily Waecker (Where can I find that gown worn in the second act by Eliza Stoughton's Gloria?), vibrant set work from Tim Mann and, as mentioned already, tremendous performances from all featured actors.
Visible weaknesses are few and far between. In the accompanying press materials, Douglass attributes the production's success to the intent of Shaw who "took stock comedic characters, then gave them real, human reasons for their behavior. The result is a great play from multiple perspectives: as farce, as literature, as societal critique."
Set in a fashionable English seaside resort slightly before the turn of the 20th century, a woman's self-help writer known as Mrs. Clandon (the stately Elaine Rivkin) is forced to divulge the true parentage of her three grown children, through a combination of chance and the curiosity of her free-spirited offspring. The story of a mostly successful single mother must have been somewhat shocking in Shaw's time, but in late 2012, the plot reflects a common family dynamic that makes its jaunty humor intensely relatable.
This second offering from Remy Bumppo's 2012/2013 season, themed "The Marriage Game: Truth and Consequence?" hews to the Company's overarching narrative through the burgeoning relationship of Valentine and Gloria, Mrs. Clandon's eldest daughter, while offering a brilliant stand-alone production for lovers of good theater. This comedy of sexual dynamics and manners is appropriate for all ages and definitely one to add to your holiday event calendar.
"You Never Can Tell" runs through Jan. 6 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL. For info or tickets call 773-404-7336, or visit the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company website.