The Philanderer at the Aurora gets off to a rocky start. The opening scene, with Leonard Charteris and Grace Tranfield on a sofa, "making love," in Shaw's dated expression (which seems to mean talking sentimental nonsense and maybe kissing a forearm), is so ridiculously Victorian you want to guffaw and walk out. Simon Vance, playing Charteris, wears a long pair of obviously fake mustaches and a perfectly mismatched suit; he and Susan Jane-Harrison (as Grace) both talk the way people do on TV when they imitate snooty drama. Vance even rolls his r's. The play treads a careful line between farce and melodrama, and although it reads well enough (The Philanderer is still one of my favorite scripts), somehow it suffers in translation to the stage. Theater companies rarely perform this show anymore, maybe because so much of it looks, and sounds, like stuffy Victorian pap.
Lively Humor and Grace: Charles Dean (foreground) with Simon Vance and Susan-Jane Harrison in The Philanderer.
By George Bernard Shaw. Produced by the Aurora Theater. Through Oct. 15. Admission is $30; call (510) 843-4822.
But it's not: It's Shaw, so things pick up immediately. Lee-Ann Manley bursts in as Julia Craven, a blubbering, flouncy wreck of a middle-aged actress with roses in her hair, wearing a red dress trimmed with chintzy lace, and accuses Charteris of philandering. Manley has the force of a train and poses a physical threat to people in the front row of the Berkeley City Club's cramped room, but her acting is marvelous, and quickens the pulse of the show every time she comes on. She's followed by her father, Dan Craven, and Gen. Cuthbertson, who are well-played not just individually, by Charles Dean and Chris Ayles, but also as a pair: They have a brilliant old-boy rapport that undergirds the whole production.
Most of the characters belong to the Ibsen Club, supposedly a modern, progressive-minded London institution of the 1890s that admits both "cocks and hens." Shaw's big talent was to dramatize the war between his own rational, progressive ideals and his base blind affections, and the Ibsen Club is a perfect battleground. "Whilst I was in the act of framing my excuse to the lady," says Don Juan, in a completely different play, "Life seized me and threw me into her arms as a sailor throws a scrap of fish into the mouth of a seabird." That's the essence of what happens in The Philanderer: The modern, rational club members flirt, and find themselves in a lot of embarrassing, old-fashioned romantic trouble.
The whole point of the Ibsen Club is to overturn Victorian sex roles: Traditional "manliness" and "womanliness" are against the rules. The members swear off gallantry and masculine honor as well as feminine coyness and jealousy. This befuddles the older generation, especially Julia's mutton-chopped father, who can't believe someone has actually stood up, in public, to declare his daughter "unwomanly." Charteris says it's a compliment. Craven doesn't understand. But it also doesn't matter, because poor Julia has already dissolved into a womanly lump of tearful jealousy. She wants Charteris to marry her; she can't stand to be without him. (She has no income otherwise.) In a couple of brilliant scenes we also see that Julia can turn her squealing, squeaky torrent of grief off and on like a light, depending on whether Charteris is in the room.
If the social ironies skewered by Shaw have gone a little stale -- a co-ed social club; so what? -- at least the play is funny. Shaw's comic routines still have juice, and director Barbara Oliver paces them beautifully here. The first act accelerates minute by minute and careens into Gen. Cuthbertson's silent, goggling astonishment when Charteris finally explains his philandering. Chris Ayles' incredulousness (as Cuthbertson) and Charles Dean's droopy dog-eyed expressions (as Dan Craven) are priceless. In the second act, the near-silent tea between Dr. Paramore and Julia has a masterful, fragile tension, and Paramore's revelation about the disease eating Craven's liver is high comedy. Susan-Jane Harrison plays Grace as a quietly outraged woman of good sense; Amanda Duarte falters only sometimes as Julia's crisply modern sister.
It's Simon Vance's performance as Charteris that falls flat. He paces his lines well, but seems affected, self-conscious. The endless, talky analysis of the Ibsen Club's ideals comes mostly out of Charteris' mouth, and Vance fails to make it endlessly interesting. Part of this is Shaw's fault; he has a tendency to overwrite his alter-ego roles, and his overanalysis of manliness and womanliness is also the most dated part of the play, so Vance has a double burden to carry.
These flaws, however, are minor. Barbara Oliver set out to produce a museum piece -- "an unusually personal glimpse into the Battle of the Sexes as the Late Victorians fought it" -- and she's done it, as usual, with a lively humor and grace.