The billing of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “You Never Can Tell,” directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr. for the Yale Rep, proclaims that the show is one of “High Comedy, True Romance, and Seaside Dentistry.” Indeed, we undoubtedly do have seaside dentistry here. The other two, slightly more ambitious claims, are somewhat less justified.
The turn-of-the-century play follows Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon (Sandra Shipley) and her three children, Dolly (Mireille Enos), Philip (Neal Dodson) and Gloria (Shannon Koob), as they vacation at a seaside resort in England. Mrs. Clandon is a stern, opinionated, socially progressive woman; as another of the play’s characters reports, she champions Darwin, Mill, Elliot and women’s rights. She has raised her children according to the social, familial and personal tenets she propounds in a series of commercial books that emphasize personal privacy in the family and the equality and rights of women — and which scorn sentiment in favor of temperate reason. More than anything, Mrs. Clandon refuses her children any knowledge of their long-absent father, whose behavior in their marriage and, it seems, very existence defy her carefully wrought values.
Mrs. Clandon’s efforts have been successful solely on Gloria, the oldest child and her mother’s ally against men, sentiment and feminine weakness. Dolly and Philip, who have clearly received less of their mother’s ideological attention, jabber incessantly, mock everyone, and seem to possess an unending well of devilish, good-natured energy. When, at Dolly and Philip’s encouragement, the town’s penniless but perpetually light-hearted dentist, Mr. Valentine (John Hansen), joins the family for lunch at their hotel, we get an absurd meal-time scene. When he falls madly in love with the chilly Gloria, we prepare ourselves for a comedic romantic predicament. When Mr. Valentine’s crabby, gruff landlord, Mr. Crampton (Martin Rayner), shows up on the scene, the silliness is intensified. And when Mr. Crampton turns out to be the children’s estranged father, positive wackiness ensues.
This type of play needs actors who are truly loveable and absurd, but not cloying. Sadly, few of this cast pull it off. Koob plays a flat and stiff Gloria; we don’t quite believe her unyielding feminism at the start, nor do we believe her eventual transformation to doting lover at the end. Hansen as Valentine is more annoying than he is appealing. We wish that, just for one second, we could wipe the unassailable grin off his face and replace it with something more genuine. Of the two younger children, who are supposed to “have a free way with them,” Enos’ Dolly seems more imprisoned than liberated by her perky posture and delighted facial expression. Dodson’s Philip, whom we are supposed to adore for his good-natured self-applause and his refusal to take anything seriously, comes off as just plain obnoxious.
The older generation of characters, though, is far better played, and they are the ones in this battle of generations who end up with most of our sympathies. Shipley handles Mrs. Clandon nicely. She is stern but kind; we understand why she has eschewed the company of men, and she understands why this makes her a bit of a pathetic figure. Though his complete transformation to loving father at the end may be a bit much, Rayner as Mr. Crampden at least manages to prepare us with his character’s predictable sort of emotional depth — under his crabbiness lies a sensitivity that makes him undeserving of his family’s reproaches. William (Michael Allinson), the family’s waiter at the hotel, who is wise and unhesitatingly loves and accepts his lawyer son while quietly mocking his profession, is a lovely figure. He is perfectly content in life and thinks everyone else should be too, and it is William who speaks the wisdom of the play — that “you never can tell” what will happen and what people will turn out to be like underneath.
In the end, these three actors pull off solid performances and the show’s seaside scenery is gorgeous. But the play isn’t quite funny enough and the acting not quite appealing enough, so, all in all, it comes up a bit dry. Seaside dentistry alone is not enough to carry a play.
You Never Can Tell
Monday at 7 p.m., Tuesday- Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Through Oct. 13