Shaw revival achieves the brio of true comedy. Slight changes keep balance of author's original
Man and Superman Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by William Woodman. The Roundabout Theatre Company makes one of its recurrent forays into Shavian country with a lively, laudable, and somewhat streamlined version of ``Man and Superman.'' George Bernard Shaw described this early 20th-century work (1901-03) as ``a comedy and a philosophy.'' Director William Woodman and a cast headed by David Birney give their author a fair hearing in both departments.
In the end, comedy wins out - as Shaw undoubtedly knew it would.
In his foreword to the Signet paperback that includes ``Man and Superman,'' Eric Bentley points out that ``this very `modern' and `20th-century' play was made up of narrative materials familiar to every Victorian theatergoer.''
These included a beleaguered hero, a clandestine marriage, a noble romantic sacrifice, a misdelivered letter, temporary mistaken identity, and sudden surprise disclosures such as Violet's announcement that she is respectably married.
At the center of most, if not all, of these developments is John Tanner himself, the reluctant Don Juan of the comedy. Incorrigibly verbose (whether anyone will listen to him or not), determinedly iconoclastic, simultaneously exasperating and winning, Tanner can talk his way in or out of almost any situation. Except, of course, when the situation involves the designs of Ann Whitefield (Frances Conroy), the ultimate deviser of his destiny.
When the triumphant Ann, at the very end, urges him, ``Go on talking,'' Tanner can only utter an exasperated, ``Talking!'' He has the last word, but she has the last laugh.
Conviction rings like a clear bell throughout Mr. Birney's splendid performance. Whether he is routing stuffy Ramsden Roebuck (an easy mark as I.M. Hobson portrays him), apologizing to Violet for a presumptuous assumption, describing the selfishness of ``the artist man and the mother woman,'' or recalling his discovery of moral passion, Birney responds to Tanner's immediate impulse. His exchanges with Henry Straker (Anthony Fusco), his well-schooled chauffeur, are equally forthright. Henry, the ``New Man,'' can repair the shiny motorcar, whistle Mozart, and remind his employer that it was Beaumarchais and not Voltaire who said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Only in the person of the serenely manipulative Ann is Tanner outmatched (or, if you prefer, ideally matched). In her silken performance, delectable Miss Conroy's Ann is the quintessence of subtly concealed determination. Watch as Ann symbolically encircles her victim's neck in a black feather boa; listen as she blandly attributes her own machinations to the wishes of those around her.
In the role of Ann's mother, Kim Hunter accepts Mrs. Whitefield's unwelcome responsibilities with philo-sophic resignation. The secondary plot involving Violet Robinson (Harriet Harris) and the young American, Hector Malone (Jonathan Walker), no doubt fulfilled Victorian expectations and can still delight an audience.
In almost every respect, the revival achieves the brio and essential seriousness required of true comedy. The cast includes Michael Cumpsty as the level-on Octavius and John Carpenter as Mr. Malone, the self-made Irish-American millionaire who, needless to say, is putty in the hands of pragmatic Violet.
Mr. Woodman has omitted the optional third act (with the ``Don Juan in Hell'' scene) and made certain other trims and revisions. Whatever Shaw might think of these directorial alterations, they do not affect the balances of the comedy's alternative version.
Bob Shaw's neatly architectural settings open out to lovely skyscapes - soft gray for England and Mediterranean blue for Granada, all splendidly lighted by F. Mitchell Dana. Andrew B. Marlay's decorous costumes add to the visual pleasures of the revival.
``Man and Superman'' is scheduled to run through Feb. 28.
John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.