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Shaw's slight seaside comedy swamped by overproduction

"You Never Can Tell" By G. B. Shaw • Gloria Maddox Theater, T. Schreiber Studio, 51 West 26th St., NYC • Thru June 19, 2011)

There was, in late 19th century British theater, a brief but intense vogue for what might be called "the seaside comedy. Even George Bernard Shaw, the only individual ever to win both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize for Literature, tried his hand at it, with rather pale results.

Shaw's attempt, "You Never Can Tell," was written in 1899, the result of a bet the playwright made with a friend. It broke a four-year silence after the Dublin-born writer completed "Candida."

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Set on a fine August day, on a fashionable seaside resort on the southern coast of England, Shaw's seaside comedy, though never among his most popular plays, is still revived from time to time - including this earnest, although slightly over-ambitious new production.

Mrs.Clandon, a celebrated writer and independent "New Woman," has experienced a self-imposed 18-year exile in Madeira. Now she has returned to England with her three children, now grown. There's Gloria, the eldest, and the giddy younger twins, Philip and Dorothea, called Dolly.

Their mother's estranged husband, now known as Mr. Crampson, for unexplained reasons, happens to be a familiar figure at the Marine Hotel, where Mrs. Clandon and her children have taken rooms.

The situation, plus Dolly's visit to the rented operating room of Valentine, a dashing young dentist, leads to an unexpected family reunion, since Mr. Crampson is the dentist's landlord.

Mrs. Clandon, Mr. Crampson, and the trio of siblings recognize and acknowledge one another, making their peace with the years they have been apart. They have emerged from those years as virtual strangers.

"You Never Can Tell" is an exceedingly slight comedy, with little theatrical meat on its fragile bones. Robert Verlaque, an experienced director and a longtime instructor at the T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre, has seen fit to pad his production with musical numbers and complicated choreography, which delays the curtain of this simple play to the point where its running time is nearly three hours. Those several musical interpolations are, to put things extremely mildly, more than the traffic can comfortably bear.

It's a pity, since the production is well-cast, and, as is usually the case with T. Schreiber, handsomely designed, this time, with scenery by Chris Menard and costumes by Steven Daniels.

Verlaque opens his show with an awkward directorial stumble, having four actors dressed as servants, facing the audience flat out and informing them that, following the performance, a hat will be passed to raise money to defray some of the cost of the production. A red cap, demonstrated at the start, is later pressed into service as promised, a detail which could profitably be dropped for the remainder of the run, which ends on June 19.

Among the production's better performances are Lowell Byers' Valentine, Jessica Osborne's Gloria, and, as the twins, Noelle P. Wilson's somewhat frantic Dolly and Seth James' Philip.

There's still sufficient time in the run for the show to settle down a bit.