Among his contemporaries, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was arguably the most ardent admirer of his own talent.
There’s no question that he could turn a phrase or craft a dramatic scene, but his horror of any kind of censorship carried over into his creative life with decidedly mixed results.
Man and Superman, written by Shaw in 1903 and sadly showing its age now, is currently playing in a sumptuous production at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.
Originally a four-act drama, director David Staller has adapted this tsunami of words into two manageable acts featuring three long scenes apiece.
In itself this is an accomplishment to marvel at -- lesser talents would have been cowed by this epic task. I freely admit the only use I can myself identify for this bombastic, seemingly endless script is that it might make for a handy doorstop.
There is much to admire in the current production at the Rep. Shaw apparently began the play in part to contemplate but more often refute philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s at the time increasingly popular proto-Nazi theories of race and destiny, which is certainly a commendable impulse, and a mark of his sanity, but then Shaw’s habitual garrulousness keeps pulling the play in other less interesting directions.
It’s a dense stew, Man and Superman, pursuing its own fancies with an admirable indifference to the demands of structure, narrative, coherence or indeed entertainment. Only a writer with an enviable awareness of his own theatrical mastery would have allowed himself the latitude that Shaw does here.
Along the way Shaw includes a lot of embarrassing psychosexual babble about men being spiritual creators versus women being biological creators, which in the vernacular means men make stuff and women give birth to stuff.
Boys say blee and girls say blah, I suppose, and from these insights great and penetrating truths about the nature of existence are revealed.
The playwright is determined to contemplate the function of women in society, and he seems to conclude that they ultimately represent a “life force” that seeks to conquer men. Or at least, so it seemed to me at the production I attended.
The marvelous thing about a Shaw play is that it prefers to do all the thinking for you, helpfully including its own footnotes, prelude and afterword. In fact, you might not even take the trouble to attend, enough to know that it has been written.
As Jack Tanner, the young man in full flight from the imprisoning humbug of Edwardian society, actor Max Gordon Moore gives a spirited performance in a production that at times creaks under the weight of its own brilliance.
As his female foil and conqueror Ann, Janie Brookshire has her work cut out playing at various moments a mantrap, a ward, an heiress, a coquette, and all the other limited and prescribed roles a handsome woman of means was allowed to play in the era the play was written.
Along the way we visit hell -- because why not? -- and the visit affords Shaw a philosophical debate with the Devil and an opportunity to contemplate issues like morality, sin, redemption and on and on.
The visit to the underworld inspires the playwright to new heights of brilliance and so he crafts some terrific maxims, which the delighted actors feed us in tableau after tableau.
Somewhere toward the end of act one it seemed to me that a portal of eternity had opened, around the time that Jack was making plans to escape the yawning maw of his female suitor with the help of a steam or perhaps gas powered motorcar.
At about this point Jack tells his pal Octavius (the winsome Will Bradley) who is in love with Ann to flee her machinations before it’s too late.
“You think that you are Ann’s suitor; that you are the pursuer and she the pursued; that it is your part to woo, to persuade, to prevail, to overcome. Fool: it is you who are the pursued, the marked down quarry, the destined prey. You need not sit looking longingly at the bait through the wires of the trap: the door is open, and will remain so until it shuts behind you forever,” says Jack.
This is all a bit overwrought, I thought. What did Jack (and Shaw) expect would happen?
Lamenting the loss of youth and vigor and independence and self-determination to a marriage is an age-old concern. But in Man and Superman he has Jack fear it like annihilation.
If that’s the sort of anxiety that keeps you awake at night you’ll find much to admire in the Rep’s current production.
The Irish Repertory Theatre is located at 132 West 22nd Street. For tickets and showtimes visit www.irishrep.org., or call 212-727-2737.
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