You Never Can Tell
The Pearl Theatre Company
As the saying goes, you never can tell, but that might be truer in life than in theater. I could tell, for instance, not long after the curtains parted on this production of George Bernard Shaw’s venerable comedy, that stiff, uninspired acting, awkward staging, and slow pacing were going to stifle any laughs and distract the audience. In fact, this feeling began when I saw the director, David Staller, greeting every member of the audience in the lobby with a set speech about how he hoped they'd enjoy the play. Staller, who claims in his program note to be the only person to have directed all of Shaw’s 65 plays, also took to the stage beforehand to talk some more about how he hoped we would enjoy everything. Staller, it seems, has spent his life devoted to “all things Shaw,” which is admirable. Shaw is seldom revived with the frequency or enthusiasm given to new productions of Chekhov, Ibsen or Wilde. Fifteen years ago on Broadway, however, Robert Sean Leonard starred in a brisk and highly pleasing staging of You Never Can Tell, so frequent playgoers might at least have that production in their memory as a fine representation of one of Shaw’s lesser plays. If you hadn’t seen or read this play and were just coming upon it in this Pearl Theatre production (through October 13), you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was stuffy, dated, tediously rambunctious and filled with coincidences (as if Shaw is bowing to the theatrical conventions of his time by making those conventions seem ridiculous.)
There's a good deal of bad acting going on in this You Never Can Tell, lots of face-making and forced emotional outbursts and lugubrious mistiming that bungles even the simplest jokes. When you're watching a bad movie, there's at least the chance that the camera will cut to a different location, or a flashback, or a different storyline with a different cast, but when you're watching a play that's going badly, there can be no such relief.
To be fair, the second act, if you stay for it, plays much better than the first. As the free-thinking Mrs. Margaret Clandon, Robin Leslie Brown gives a heroically professional and presentable performance, and at the very end of the play, Zachary Spicer zestily plays a deus ex machina character in a way that satisfies our thirst for something novel. The well-meaning Staller has made several very mistaken directorial choices here, the worst of which is his tendency to stop the action for important moments and bring on music and even different lighting to get the point across. I’m sure he has done better work with those other 64 Shaw plays, but it’s easy to tell that this is a low point for everyone involved.