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Shaw, a Dublin native, lived from 1856 to 1950. He wrote prolifically and was a staunch defender of Irish nationalism, while introducing what were at the time radical ideas about socialism, equality and morality. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925 and an Academy Award in 1938 for his adapted screenplay of his play "Pygmalion" (later made even more famous when it was turned into the hugely popular musical "My Fair Lady.") Paying tribute to one of Ireland's greatest writers is certainly reason enough for the Irish Rep to stage "Man and Superman," even though it's set in England and has only two Irish characters.
But the reason that resonated loudest with this reviewer was the wonder that a play written in 1903 can so accurately represent the views of (some) Americans today about the dangers of letting women make their own choices.
With the death of Ann's father, Jack becomes Ann's guardian and spends the rest of the time trying to convince everyone, himself included, that she is a "boa constrictor who will destroy any man she sets upon, especially the innocently infatuated Octavius (Will Bradley). Jack insists that any man Ann chooses loses all choice in the matter, not knowing at first that he is the true object d'amour. He also laments her target's lack of say in the matter without a trace of irony, which is laughable considering that Ann is forced to submit her life entirely to the will of her dead father and the two male guardians her father anointed.
As with any comedy centered on a bantering, bickering pair of attractive young people, we don't doubt that Jack and Ann will come together in the end, but Shaw makes delicious work of forcing us to guess how much either will have to sacrifice in order to make that happen.
Ann is not allowed to make her own choices, of course, so she must resort to lying and laying a complex groundwork to snag her man. The male characters rail against this kind of trapping, but the play is aware of how unfair that is -- Ann's only other choice is to submit to Octavius, which seems as likely as a boa constrictor submitting to a baby deer. Ann becomes the woman who can't be trusted to know what's best for herself, and is automatically villainized when she attempts to get around that label by making her own decisions.
It turns out, of course, that audacious Ann will see herself safely married off, and that Violet is no harlot after all, so we can all breathe a corseted sigh of relief. We laugh at these conventions — the unmarried pregnant woman is later met with more consternation than a band of roving thieves; the young woman can't possibly know her own mind so it must be safeguarded by the older men around her. But when we leave the theater, we still confront those conventions in their less potent but still powerful 21st century forms.
The classic comedy hasn't been performed in the New York in 25 years, and David Staller's adaptation and direction shows us what we've been missing all this time. Staller, who is the first person to have directed all 65 of Shaw's plays, is considered an expert, and his understanding of the work shows in the production, and especially in the casting. He has tweaked the script, tightened it, and extracted some of the best idioms spouted by the characters to incorporate into opening tableaus. The characters directly address the audience with such statements as "Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get," and "Lack of money is the root of all evil," before introducing the scene about to take place.
Staller's setup works — it gives the otherwise naturalistic play a sheen of self-awareness and lets the audience in on the absurdity of this Victorian world of manipulated rules. It also introduces all of the characters from the start, even those we don't meet until later acts. This convention quickly lets us know that, for these people sitting safely in their drawing room in Act I, there is much hidden as well as much to come — let's not forget that they will all go to Hell before the night is through. (Don't worry, they come back.)
The staging of the "Don Juan in Hell" scene in Act II, which can stand alone and is often cut from "Man and Superman" productions, is reason enough to see this play. Also, the Occupy Wall Street-esque, "steal from the rich to give to the poor" musings of the brigande leader Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond) and the spats between the American son, Hector (Zachary Spicer) and his Irish father, Malone (Paul O'Brien), bring welcome additional dimensions to the plot. Everyone in the cast is superb, and the play is visually enchanting, even when the content is deliciously disconcerting. WG
Performances of "Man and Superman" run through June 17 at The Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues): Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Thursdays at 7 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65, and are available by calling 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org.
This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.
Copyright © 2012 by Megan Finnegan Bungeroth and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to email@example.com.