It was only a matter of time until David Staller, who has directed starry, sold-out readings of every single George Bernard Shaw play through Project Shaw at the Players Club, presented one of them as a full staging. But how impressive that it should be Man and Superman, a long-winded 1903 rarity that hasn’t been done in New York for decades.
A co-production between Staller’s Gingold Theatrical Group and Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, it is being performed as part of Shaw New York, a festival that also includes some concert and lecture events. Staller has judiciously cut the four-act play, which could run more than five hours uncut, in half, so that it clocks in at exactly three hours.
As Man and Superman begins, young Ann (Janie Brookshire) learns that, under her father’s will, her newly appointed guardians are to be the stuffy, grumpy, older gentleman Ramsden (Brian Murray) and the notoriously freethinking and truth-seeking bachelor Jack Tanner (Max Gordon Moore), who is best known as the author of the “Revolutionist’s Handbook.” In between scenes, cast members read short selections from the treatise, which Shaw originally wrote to accompany the play.
Ann, who is object of the affections of Jack’s romantic pal Octavius (Will Bradley), really desires Jack, who has no interest in marriage and is at first totally oblivious to Ann’s true feelings. Once enlightened, Jack and his working-class chauffer Straker (Brian Sgambati) flee by automobile to Spain, where they run into the colorful peasant, thief and Jew Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond).
After Jack falls asleep by campfire, the play segues into its famous “Don Juan in Hell” scene, which is structured as a separate one-act play loosely based on the characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni that loosely reflects upon the play’s themes. Jack plays Don Juan, while Mendoza is the Devil and Ann is Donna Anna. The 90-minute scene, which reveals that heaven is such a bore that people want to leave it for hell, is often cut from Man and Superman, and is occasionally even performed as a separate show. Here, Staller retains a 30-minute version at the top of act two.
A subplot concerns Ann’s sister Violet (Margaret Loesser Robinson), who tries to hide from the crowd that she has been secretly married to Hector (Zachary Spicer), an American whose traditional father (Paul O’Brien) would disapprove of the marriage and cut him off financially.
While Shaw purists might object to downsizing the original text, this coherent adaptation focuses on the comedy of manners at the center of the plot while retaining the vigor of Shaw’s many philosophic arguments. Shaw also heightens the play’s physical comedy aspects so that it brims with liveliness even as deeply intellectual, often didactic speeches are made.
Moore is terrific as the high-strung, self-consumed Jack, always bringing a theatrical air to his delivery. As Ann, Brookshire provides a lively, focused and confident presence to square off against Moore. By contrast, Hammond’s Mendoza bursts with jollity. Murray, a veteran character actor, also stands out as the disapproving Ramsden.
The production is framed around James Noone’s elegant gold-and-white drawing room set. When the time comes for Jack to take a drive, a table is turned around to resemble an automobile. The Spain scene is done with merely a change in Kirk Bookman’s warm lighting and M. Florian Staab’s atmospheric sound design. For “Don Juan in Hell,” a kind of shower curtain is stretched over the walls. Theresa Squire’s period costumes are appropriately stylish.