In 1917, Jesse Lynch Williams won the very first Pulitzer Prize for drama with this provocative comedy. At a time when Broadway wasn't much interested in ideas, Williams attempted to transpose George Bernard Shaw's social debates onto American soil, influenced by Shaw's Getting Married and You Never Can Tell. (He left a clue by incorporating the line "You never can tell!" into his text.) But the most astonishing thing about Why Marry? is that, 90 years later, it's still relevant. The customs and locutions may have changed, but the underlying issues are with us still.
Wealthy, self-important businessman John (Steven Benson) bullies his conventional wife, Lucy (Judy Young), and everybody else who crosses his path, but his younger sister, Helen (Aimee Guichard), is a "new woman" who scandalizes him by choosing to pursue education and a career in science. Even more shockingly, she has "compromised" herself by working at night, alone and unchaperoned, in the laboratory with young scientist Ernest (Greg Baglia), her boss. The pair secretly love each other, but neither will admit it.
John first attempts to prevent their marriage; he regards ill-paid scientists, teachers, and clergymen as lower caste. But when Helen and Ernest threaten to go off to Paris together to work on a scientific project, he's determined to bulldoze them into marriage and respectability. Adding to the imbroglio are their two uncles: the feisty Judge (David St. James) and the priest, Theodore (James Knudsen). There's also a young relative (Christine Krench), whom John is determined to marry off to a wealthy, upper-class cad (Tripp Pickell).
When the debate threatens to get overly didactic, Williams neutralizes it with a shot of comedy. And director-set designer David Cheaney keeps the action brisk, stylish, and amusing on his elegant green-and-white set, Guichard provides handsome and authentic period costumes, and all the performances are first-rate.
Presented by Theatre Neo at the Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Apr. 13-May 29. (323) 769-5858. www.theatreneo.com.