Aristocrats, acrobats, anarchists, marriage proposals and a plane crash populate Shaw’s ‘Misalliance’
From left, Josey Montana McCoy, Deborah Strang, Riley Shanahan, Frederick Stuart and Peter Van Norden / Craig Schwartz

PASADENA, Calif. — A Noise Within’s spot-on, sparkling mounting of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, set in 1909 Surrey, England, is a dazzling delight to behold. The flawlessly delivered, witty Shavian wordplay cuts more sharply than swordplay, proving once again that the proverbial pen is mightier than the sword. The comedy explores a wide range of themes—sexuality, gender roles, aristocracy, the capitalist class, socialism, assassination, women’s liberation, and lest we forget, the Edwardian era’s newfangled flight of fancy, aviation. This heady two-act concoction, which more or less follows the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action (although Shaw cheated the Poetics—subplots abound here), is the best play this reviewer has had the good luck to see since Fatherland opened last March at the Fountain.

Let the worldly wise tomfoolery and drollery unfold:

From left, Dan Lin, Joshua Bitton, Erika Soto / Craig Schwartz

The story takes place (mostly) in the conservatory of the well-appointed country home (the splendid sumptuous set is designed by Angela Balogh Calin) of bombastic John Tarleton (Peter Van Norden), an autodidact and self-made man, who repeatedly boasts that he’s “a super-abundance of energy,” who has hit the jackpot selling underwear. (Too bad Shaw didn’t live long enough to scribble a comedy about Victoria and her secrets.) Tarleton’s attractive daughter Hypatia (Erika Soto portrays this coquettish character rather preposterously named by her pretentious dad after a rare female scholar of ancient Rome), seems to be pushing 30 and is fed up with the stifling bourgeois lifestyle that confines her. As she puts it, “All of this materialism” tires her, as does the incessant prattle and pontificating she (along with the audience) is subjected to. (Fortunately for theatergoers, said blather is actually written by one of the English language’s greatest wordsmiths, so it tickles the ears and funnybone, albeit spoken in British accents and often rapidly, so pay close attention.)

Hypatia is engaged to Bentley Summerhays (Josey Montana McCoy): Although he’s touted as an intellect, he’s actually quite a spoiled twit, as well as slight in stature. “Bunny” (as he’s nicknamed) is so bloody annoying that within minutes of his arrival Hypatia’s older, rather physically fit brother Johnny (Riley Shanahan) threatens to thrash him. But, within the British pecking order, Bunny has one thing going for him: His father, mustachioed Lord Summerhays (Frederick Stuart) is a blueblood, and a KCB (Knight Commander of Bath, The Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Britain’s order of chivalry). So, Bunny has an impeccable aristocratic lineage, and the Tarletons, being mere capitalists, yearn for royal titles.

The aging Lord has returned to England after serving the Empire for decades as governor-general or raja of Jinghiskahn, some Far East colonial outpost Shaw cleverly concocted, likely by mangling (or, in today’s parlance, “misappropriating”) the name of Genghis Khan. He is “veddy British,” as they say – but not quite so chivalrous behind closed doors, as he has been lusting after and pursuing his son’s fiancée, Hypatia, who is decades his junior. Instead of being revolted by Lord Summerhays’s proposal, the underwear heiress is actually flattered and tickled pink, because it’s so out of kilter with the bourgeois world Hypatia finds so stultifying. When her father later finds out about the KCB’s designs on his daughter, Tarleton is furious—that Hypatia hadn’t accepted his hand in marriage so the family could acquire some royal titles, along with everything else these parvenues have collected.

Joshua Bitton and Trisha Miller / Craig Schwartz

Hypatia’s courtship with Bunny and flirtation with his dad the cad are among the play’s many mismatches that Shaw’s title, Misalliance, alludes to. Other incongruous unions emerge when enter the comedy’s most uproarious character, the aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska (hysterical Trisha Miller), who literally drops in. Lina appears from out of the skies (courtesy of a plane probably designed by Boeing), like the deus ex machina in a Greek tragedy by Euripides: Shaw’s kooky character literally puts the Pan into Szczepanowska. A Polish circus acrobat, Shaw comically endows her with the qualities of the ideal woman—Amazonian beauty, a fiercely independent streak, youthfulness, intellect, etc. Of course, some of the men, including Tarleton the elder, go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs over Lina. When he propositions her, Lina fears he’d grow tired of her; the 58-year-old (who looks more like he’s 75) quips something like he’s not strong enough to get tired. (Shaw reputedly had a strange sex life—or lack of it—which this charmingly incredible incarnation of what he conceived of as the liberated woman seems to be “Exhibit A.”)

There’s one other character I’ll mention, Julius Baker (Joshua Bitton), whom Shaw throws into this combustible mix to spoof anarchists and their overzealous notion of “the propaganda of the deed.” I suspect that the Irish bard is lampooning liquidators like Alexander Berkman, who unsuccessfully tried to shoot anti-union factory manager/industrialist Henry Clay Frick during 1892’s Homestead Strike, and Leon Czolgosz, the leftwing fanatic who assassinated Pres. McKinley in 1901.

Shaw himself was a socialist who authored pamphlets for the Fabian Society and he has a great time poking fun at the aristocracy, capitalist class, patriarchy, monogamy, and more in Misalliance. In terms of more modern (if not exactly up-to-date) pop culture, the musical chairs or revolving coupling is a recurring theme in Woody Allen’s movies, especially 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. The improbably monikered Hypatia’s ennui and angst against materialism and a bourgeois lifestyle put me in mind of The Graduate (not to say that hazy Lord Summerhays is exactly Mrs. Robinson). Overall, the nine-person ensemble made me think of screwball comedies, especially Frank Capra’s 1938 You Can’t Take It With You, which scored Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and was a screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

With Misalliance, ANW and the comedy’s helmer, veteran director Guillermo Cienfuegos, this peerless production is simply in tiptop shape and fine form. The indefatigable Cienfuegos elicits top-notch performances from his cast, and as that daring young woman on the flying trapeze, Trisha Miller’s prototypical feminist steals the show. Costume designer Christine Cover Ferro also deserves a shout out for her Edwardian period apparel.

I laughed from beginning to end throughout Misalliance and much of the nearly sold-out crowd was in on the jokes. Although I warn thee, Dear Reader, Shaw’s dialogue flies fast and furious, and our Yankee Doodle Dandy ears need to get acclimated to those British (and Polish!) accents. But ticket buyers with sophisticated taste in humor will revel in Shavian sheer hilarity; a dalliance with Misalliance may simply make you feel glad to be alive. After all, in these tough times, good fun is very serious business.

A Noise Within presents Misalliance on Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m., with 2:00 p.m. matinees on Sat. and Sun. through June 9 at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena 91107. (Note: There is no evening performance on Sat., June 8, and postperformance conversations with the artists will take place on Fridays.) For info and tickets, go to the company website or call  (626) 356-3121. Free parking is in an adjacent garage. Or go Metro: there’s a station immediately adjacent.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.