The principal beauty of George Bernard Shaw’s plays is that despite all the arguments, almost none of his characters makes sense. They all know it, and they don’t care, and they keep on arguing anyway, because it’s fun. And fun always leads to the good, albeit a good of much greater complexity than we might ever imagine.
That sense of the good guides us through the set of ridiculous circumstances of the rarely performed, You Never Can Tell, currently playing at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda under the auspices of the California Shakespeare Theater in a production that oscillates between the admirable and the misguided. Under Lisa Peterson’s direction, the cast and crew certainly get right what is most necessary to the play -- and that is love, at its most antagonistic, sharp, and battle ready.
When Valentine, a dentist, who cares little for his profession meets Gloria, the daughter of a famous feminist, it’s love at first sight. But neither party is ready to surrender either their ideals or their souls. And so the war is on. Matthew Baldiga and Sabina Zuniga Varela give the kind of performances Shaw’s plays demand. They are gracious, proud, foolish, biting, and always of this world. In Shaw, love is never enough; the world must come with it.
For Valentine, it means negotiating the complex and frivolous society of Gloria’s mother, Elizabeth Carter, a famous feminist who has somehow misplaced her husband for about 15 years. And for Gloria, it means accepting a man high of spirit, resolutely lazy, critical of her mother’s work, and, it goes without saying, no money. Love at first sight always seems a delight and so easy. But Shaw makes it hard and troublesome, a flash of insight that must be won again, and again, and again.
A master of coincidence and the seemingly unnecessary, Shaw mirrors Valentine and Gloria’s travails with a subplot revolving around the headwaiter at a hotel restaurant named Walter, in a brilliant comic turn by Danny Scheie. He, too, will have to work to accept the good. Watching it happen is like seeing calculus come to life -- the proof is as elegant as it is true.
I wish all the performances were as good and modulated as Baldiga, Varela, and Scheie’s, though Liam Vincent and Anthony Fusco are also quite fine. Peterson doesn’t quite seem to trust the play and so the opening scenes feel too manic and forced, instead of just unfolding before us. That requires patience, of both artists and audiences. It’s a quality Shaw demands in his plays, as well as in love, and it is a virtue that our culture is losing fast.
You Never Can Tell plays through Sunday, Sep. 4 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information please click here.