“The Philanderer” By Bernard Shaw * Director: Gus Kaikkonen * Pearl Theatre Company 307 West 38th St. at 8th Avenue * Through Feb. 19
George Bernard Shaw was 37 in 1893 when he wrote “The Philanderer,” the first play he did on his own.
Supposedly due to strict censorship of the period, and the play’s somewhat sexual content, it wasn’t produced until 1902 or even 1905, depending on the source to which you refer.
Shaw had, before “The Philanderer,” made a single attempt at collaboration, “Widowers’ Houses,” which he wrote with a friend who was a published critic, William Archer, as he himself was.
Shaw had for some 20 years been writing mainly about music, which came naturally to him, since there was much of it in the “shabby, genteel poverty” of his childhood on Synge Street in Dublin.
His journalistic assignments appear to have come mainly, at least at the beginning, though Archer’s influence.
Shaw later rewrote “Widower’s Houses” on his own, and it stands as his first produced play, though it was given just two private performances. His third play, “Arms and the Man,” came along in 1904 and was successful enough to change the course of his life.
In between there was “The Philanderer,” which Shaw appears to have suggested stands as something of a self-portrait. Shaw seems to have seen himself as the rather rough-hewn Leonard Charteris, involved with two women, the sedate and modern Grace Tranfield, and the tempestuous Julia Craven, to whom he had been attached in somewhat earlier days.
Shaw did know women who might have served as models for Grace and Julia. One, Jenny Paterson, was a friend of his mother, while the other, Florence Farr, was an Abbey Theatre actress. What was precisely the nature of their relationship remains something of a mystery to this day, but actress Farr’s rage at discovering Shaw’s fondness for Paterson appears to have formed the basis for Act One of “The Philanderer.”
Under the skilled direction of Gus Kaikkonen, whose sixth Pearl production this is, “The Philanderer” ranks as just about the strongest show the group has done since moving to their new home on West 55th Street.
Actor Bradford Cover has been a resident company member of the Pearl since 1994, but it’s doubtful if he’s ever come across as successfully as he is playing Leonard Charteris. He gives a flawless performance, which centers and balances the play to perfection.
With J.R. Sullivan currently in his third season as artistic director, the Pearl appears to have achieved a comfortable and workable arrangement involving company members working alongside those chosen from the rich pool of New York actors for their suitability for a particular role.
In the case of the eight actors required for “The Philanderer,” five are members of the Pearl company and the rest were hired for the production, including Karron Graves as the willful Julia and Shalita Grant as her younger sister, Sylvia. Also new to the company is Chris Richards, playing a Page Boy and a Butler, and understudying Leonard Charteris.
The other four Pearl regulars in addition to Cover are all excellent. They are: Rachel Botchan as Grace Tranfield; Dominic Cuskern as her father, Joseph Cuthbertson; Dan Daily is Colonel Daniel Craven, father of Julia and Sylvia; and Chris Mixon is Dr. Percy Paramore.
It’s a pity that “The Philanderer” is performed so seldom and that it remains virtually unknown even to many GBS enthusiasts. It may be its author’s first completed play, but it’s full of life and energy, and the Pearl has done it richly and well.