Shavian wit and style at the Arena Stage

George Bernard Shaw, the story goes, once received a telegram from the celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan praising his intellect and suggesting they'd be ideal parents. Think of it, she argued, a child with my body and your mind, a superchild. Shaw reportedly cabled his regrets on the grounds of possible disaster, saying he was afraid the child might have her mind and his body.

Shaw's brilliant play ``Man and Superman'' deals with just such a battle in what Thurber once called ``the war between the sexes.'' The war is currently being waged with much wit and style in three hours and four acts at the Arena Stage here.

The play is Shaw's spiky comedy about the pursuit of the ``Don Juan'' man by the woman driven by ``The Life Force,'' by ``women's need of him to carry on Nature's most urgent work.''

As Jack Tanner, the English descendant of Don Juan, says it in the play: ``It is a woman's business to get married as soon as possible, and a man's to keep unmarried as long as he can.''

The deliciousness of Shaw's tragi-comedy springs from the fact that while Tanner is warning his good friend Octavius to beware of Ann Whitefield's trap, the marriage trap is actually baited for Tanner.

Just watch the black ostrich boa in the Arena production and it all becomes clear. To everyone, that is, but Jack Tanner. Ann has swept in at the beginning of Act 1 after the announcement that her father's will makes Jack, the radical author of ``The Revolutionist's Handbook,'' one of her two guardians.

Mourning becomes Ann Whitefield; she looks beautifully bereaved in a Victorian gown of black lace over violet silk with that provocative boa at her waist. Jack has been ranting to her co-guardian, the curmudgeonly Roebuck Ramdsden, that refusing Ann's wishes is like refusing ``to accept the embraces of a boa constrictor when once it gets around your neck.''

Before Act 1 has ended, Tanner, who has warned Octavius about Ann, tells her ``The boa constrictor doesn't mind the opinions of a stag one little bit when once she has got her coils around it.'' At this point Harriet Harris as Ann glides behind his chair and with a silken smile slithers her ostrich boa around Tanner's neck.

After that moment, Shaw need not really have written three more acts before the denouement, including the ``Don Juan in Hell'' act, which is rarely performed but which the Arena production turns into something of a sizzler.

In a play where the lines snap like bull whips, Shaw has reserved some of the best dialogue for his scenario in hell. ``Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself,'' says the statue wrapped in the heavenly music Shaw borrowed from Mozart's ``Don Giovanni.'' And it includes the devil's soliloquy, the famous fiery passage about man's perverse capacity for creative self-destruction.

Man is a bungler in the arts of peace, the devil argues, ``but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself.'' Something ``more constantly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas.''

The devil wears a crimson velvet suit and a lion's tail in this Shavian hell, part of which director Douglas Wager has imaginatively staged as an endless dinner party. Under Wager's deft direction this ``Man and Superman'' is scintillating theater, done with the prickly wit, charm, and panache that Shaw deserves.

The cast, devoid of brand-name stars, is uniformly fine, but Harriet Harris as Ann is a marvel. She purrs, she flirts, she pouts, she beguiles poor Tanner and Tavvy with soft looks that sheath a steel purpose. She looks the part, too -- all romantic Victorian prettiness, a woman who wears guile like a gold brooch at her neck. The darkly handsome Franois de la Giroday, who plays Tanner, seemed a bit callow for the role in Act 1, but he quickly plunged deeper into the character and soon turned in a formidable performance.

Henry Strozier was droll as Tanner's worldly cockney chauffeur, Henry Straker, and Richard Bauer appropriately dastardly as both the devil and the brigand Mendoza. Among the rest of an excellent cast were Mark Hammer as Ann's other guardian, the crusty Roebuck Ramsden; John Leonard as the smitten poet Octavius; June Hansen as Ann's worldly mother Mrs. Whitefield; Pamela Brown as Miss Ramsden; and Katherine Leask as Tavvy's outspoken sister Violet.

Because the Arena Stage is just that, lacking a proscenium arch and curtains, so that the audience is seated around the actors, director Wager and set designer Adrienne Lobel had their work cut out for them. But Adrienne Lobel proves less is more, with the ingenious use of a rising cylindrical sub-stage. And Marjorie Slaiman's costumes manage to be elegant with just a hint of wit.

In his long preface to the play, Shaw explains to his fellow critic Arthur Bingham Walkley that he finally wrote ``Man and Superman'' 15 years after Walkley's challenge to write a Don Juan play. But what it became, he explains, was Don Juan vs. Ann as Everywoman. ``Every woman is not Ann, but Ann is everywoman.'' And so the real, final line comes not at the end of Act 4, as Tanner and Ann make wedding plans, but at the end of Act 3 after a discussion of Nietzsche's ``life force'' theory of the superman. It is when Ann, as Doa Ana in hell, cries to the universe, as Shaw says, for ``A father! A father for the Superman!'' Even Isadora Duncan couldn't have said it better.

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