George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, now running at the Irish Repertory Theatre through June 17, has always been regarded as a problematic play. It’s a curious blend of late-Victorian comedy of manners and Nietzsche-infused modern philosophizing. Most of the latter comes in the four-act drama’s notorious third act — a long dream sequence often performed as a separate play, Don Juan in Hell. Even the play’s 1905 premiere omitted the scene.
But director David Staller’s admirable adaptation attempts to restore the balance (and the dream sequence) while maintaining a running time of just under three hours. For the most part, it works — though both Staller and his cast seem far more comfortable in the drawing room than the lecture hall that seems to be Shaw’s vision of the afterlife. Max Gordon Moore is particularly fine as Jack Tanner, the aphorism-spouting modern dandy who morphs into playboy Don Juan in his dreams. His Jack has an intellectual insouciance, a delight at scandalizing the stodginess of the old, that recalls Oscar Wilde. He’s well-matched by Janie Brookshire as Ann, a young woman who’s being pursued by Jack’s hopelessly poetic friend Octavius (Will Bradley) but who clearly has set her sights on Jack. The ever-reliable Brian Murray is a treat as the stodgy moralist Ramsden, and Margaret Loesser Robinson has some fine moments as Octavius’ sister, the manipulative coquette Violet.
Under Staller’s direction, though, the play occasionally lapses into a period comedy of mannerisms: lots of actors standing with arms akimbo or holding poses for their exit lines. And despite his best efforts to treat Shaw’s unwieldy text as a whole work, Staller is unable to resolve one of the play’s thornier issues: the underlying anti-Semitism of Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond), the Jewish brigand who waylays Jack and becomes Lucifer in his dreams. Unlike the play’s women, who are dismissed as irrelevant even as they are shown to possess a pre-feminist power that most of the men on stage fail to recognize, Mendoza does not get a comparable reversal. It’s an unsettling aspect of a production that plays more smoothly when it sticks to the human comedy of young people grappling with love. B
(Tickets: IrishRep.org or 212-727-2737)