Martin Benson's lighthearted directorial choices coupled with George Bernard Shaw's pungent wit make this production one that reinvigorates the playwright's Edwardian social commentary. Avoiding the sometimes ponderous polemics that inhabit Shaw's plays, it is, instead, an intellectual confection.
The linchpin of the ensemble is Dakin Matthews as John Tarleton, the expansively successful owner of Tarleton's Underwear. He boasts a warm and friendly wife (Amelia White); an attractive and uninhibited daughter, Hypatia (Melanie Lora); and a capable but dull son (Daniel Bess).
On one afternoon in Tarleton's summer house (exquisitely designed by Ralph Funicello), we meet Hypatia's fiance, Bentley Summerhays (Wyatt Fenner); Bentley's father, Lord Summerhays (Richard Doyle); and two strangers who have crash-landed a plane into Tarleton's greenhouse. The first is a dashing antidote to Hypatia's professed boredom, John Percival (Peter Katona); the other is Lina Szczepanowska (Kirsten Potter), a Polish acrobat whose duty it is to have one adventure every day. Their interjection spawns shake-ups in the wealthy family in examining ideas about family, sex, parent-and-child relationships, literature, and socialism, to name a few. Hypatia rails against a life that is "talk, talk, talk," and that might be a condemnation of the play itself were it not for the performers' good-spirited byplay and Shaw's lively dialogue."
Matthews is an inspired choice for Tarleton, delivering a larger-than-life performance. White, Fenner, and Lora are suitably amusing, and Potter provides a quirky foil for Shaw's varying views on women. Katona is dashing in aviator's gear, and Doyle again proves his durability as a member of the repertory group. Nearly stealing the show, however, is JD Cullum as Julius Baker, a man who believes that his mother was wronged by Tarleton; Baker's comic frustration is the frosting on the cake.
Garbed in Maggie Morgan's delightful costumes, the actors deliver Shaw's monologues and dialogues with verve, making modern his turn-of-the-century story. Benson's facility with Shaw's works makes this a wonderful opener for South Coast Repertory's 47th season.
Presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Sept. 18–Oct. 10. Tue.–Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thu.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. (714) 708-5555. www.scr.com.