George Bernard Shaw tends to be remembered these days as something of a gasbag, capable of writing wry ironies and stately pronouncements but also prone to debating straw men on matters that may once have been passionately topical but now have faded into quaintness. Indeed, Shaw should serve as a warning to play-wrights of the pitfalls of political relevance; by the end of his long life he had seen social change transmute his radical socialism into dusty avuncularity. He is now most celebrated as a mainstream practitioner of the very drawing-room-comedy formulas that he tried to subvert toward hortatory ends. The plays that work best today are flights of poetry, as in his masterpiece, Heartbreak House; wistful romances, as in Candida; and whimsies about the eternal wars of the sexes, as in You Never Can Tell, which opened last week in a beguiling Broadway revival.
Two odd couplings are at center stage in this still sprightly tale: the long since abandoned marriage of a woman (Uta Hagen) who is fervently modern and a man (Stefan Gierasch) who is scrupulously conformist, and the flirtation between this couple's virginal daughter (Lise Hilboldt) and an amiable young dentist (Victor Garber) who is a seasoned rake and frank fortune hunter. In less imaginative hands, the play would end with the younger man's reforming and the older couple's rediscovering the first fine flush of passion. Shaw indulges no such false hopes. He sketches the destructive powers of jealousy and possession. His central theme is the confusion brought to courtship by the liberation, and education, of women. The surprisingly contemporary subject allows Shaw to uncork a few deft jokes and also to deliver characteristic pronunciamentos, profound on first hearing, murky on repetition: "Women have to unlearn the false good manners of their slavery before they acquire the genuine good manners of their freedom." Despite such ponderosities, Shaw manages to make lovesickness look like healthy fun.
The guiding purpose of Director Stephen Porter appears to be, as in most Shaw productions these days, to provide a showcase for acting in the old grandiloquent, gestural style. By that measure, You Never Can Tell is a thoroughgoing delight. Hagen can be one of the stage's great ripsnorting viragoes, as she demonstrated last year off-Broadway in the title role of Shaw's Mrs.Warren's Profession. At first it seems a little odd to see her instead as a dithery, warmhearted mother who is preoccupied with her children's welfare, but she brings to the part a serene decency that makes her a believable object of deference from her offspring, if not outright awe.