Shaw's `You Never Can Tell': fresh and beguiling as ever

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You Never Can Tell Play by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Stephen Porter. Starring Philip Bosco, Victor Garber, Stefan Gierasch, Uta Hagen, Amanda Plummer. There's nothing like a generous helping of George Bernard Shaw to brighten a faltering Broadway season. The Circle in the Square is proving the point with a bracingly enjoyable production of ``You Never Can Tell.'' Ninety years after it was written, Shaw's larkish comedy about family relations, dentistry, and other matters is as fresh and beguiling as ever in the production staged by Stephen Porter.

It is summer on Britannia's shores, and Mrs. Clandon (Uta Hagen), with her three independent-minded children, has settled in at the posh Marine Hotel. The Clandons have been self-exiled in Madeira since Mrs. Clandon escaped the cruelties of her marriage to Mr. Crampton (Stefan Gierasch) and changed her name along with her residence. Mrs. Clandon is a Victorian progressive, ``a veteran of the Old Guard of the Women's Rights Movement,'' whose string of books anticipates the advances of the 20th century.

The visit of teen-ager Dolly Clandon (Amanda Plummer) and her twin brother Phil (John David Cullum) to the local five-shilling dentist sets Shaw's busy plot in motion. Dentist Valentine (Victor Garber) soon meets and instantly falls in love with beautiful Gloria Clandon (Lise Hilboldt), whom Shaw describes as ``much more formidable than her mother.'' Who should Valentine's landlord turn out to be than Mr. Crampton himself? With Shaw, no coincidence is too remote for plausible accommodation.

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The first encounters and reunions, the conversations and arguments, and especially the mealtimes figure importantly in the articulate progress of events. The unacknowledged guardian angel of these oddly assorted Marine Hotel guests is William (Philip Bosco), the impeccable, imperturbable waiter. ``He has,'' writes Shaw, ``a certain expression peculiar to men who are preeminent in their callings, and who, whilst aware of the vanity of success, are untouched by envy.'' The superb Mr. Bosco plays him with an avuncular serenity, kindness, and unplumbable tact. In the end it is William's son (Stephen McHattie), a star of the legal profession, who sorts out the Clandon-Crampton affair with Dutch-uncle dispatch. Mr. McHattie has a marvelous time as the impromptu referee.

``You Never Can Tell'' is a Shavian sampler of comic delights, and the Circle in the Square cast responds to them with relish. Mr. Porter has seen to it that the style of the performance responds to the high-comedy style of the writing. Miss Hagen's Mrs. Clandon may seem at first somewhat less ``advanced'' than one had imagined (particularly in her first-act Queen Mary hat). But the behavior of Dolly (including Miss Plummer's guttural extravagances) and Phil are a tribute to progressive mothering. Apologizing at one point for Gloria's bad manners, Mrs. Clandon tells Valentine: ``Women have to unlearn the false good manners of their slavery before they can acquire the genuine good manners of their freedom.'' Sound familiar?

Mr. Garber is in first-rate form as the smitten Valentine and Ms. Hilboldt's Gloria is chillingly decorative enough to fire a romantic's ardor (five-shilling dentist or no). Mr. Gierasch manages, without compromising dudgeon, to win some belated sympathy for the irascible Crampton paterfamilias. Incidental performances fit neatly into the director's histrionic concept. The airy seaside resort setting was designed by Thomas Lynch, with lighting by Richard Nelson, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and wigs by Paul Huntley.

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