George Bernard Shaw classified "The Philanderer" among his "Plays Unpleasant." As if anticipating the sad truth that the scathing critique of today has a tendency to look quaint tomorrow, Shaw infused these topical, socially conscious plays with plenty of verbal energy and situational excitement. The first act of "The Philanderer" unfolds as a tense drawing-room comedy: arch banter, incisive put-downs and the thrilling possibility of a cat-fight all obscure the fact that this play intends to impart Serious Lessons.
But the fact remains that some heavily didactic plays age better than others, and, alas, "The Philanderer" is not among them. Its central aim is to disclose the hypocrisies abounding in the relationships between the sexes. The arrangement endured by the older generation – a woman gives up her liberty in exchange for security and, perhaps, affection – no longer seems adequate to the young protagonists. But when women follow Ibsen's Nora in asserting self-determination and renouncing male "ownership," they invite (no! they demand!) their menfolk to claim the same right to choose the appetite of the moment over the bonds of the past. Situations and speeches (a great many speeches) ensue.
Over the creaking two and a half hours of the play, Shaw's conclusions emerge: in the brave new world of gender equality, the only un-hypocritical approaches are to love everybody (like the eponymous philanderer, Charteris, played by Kevin Christopher Fox) or nobody (like cool-headed Grace, played by Kathy Logelin). Poor Julia (the magnificently petulant Lydia Berger), by contrast, secretly wants a traditional, pre-Ibsenite, monogamous relationship with her beloved Charteris. The play condemns her, but we might not. The alternatives seem so, well, exhausting.
Shaw wrote for the human voice, and his prose comes alive in ShawChicago's minimally staged reading. Every member of the cast has wonderfully expressive delivery, and engages with the dated material (including a lengthy digression on the evils and absurdities of vivisection) with enthusiasm and intelligence.
The strength of the acting and the simplicity of the production bring out the play's saving grace: "The Philanderer" may be baggy and long and old-fashioned, but it is cleverly and charmingly written. And it is equally cleverly and charmingly spoken.
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