NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont.– There are few better plays about commitment-phobia than George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” a seaside fantasia frothing with wit and infused with Miley Cyrus-level quirkiness now on stage in the Royal George Theatre.
If you’re a 20- or 30-something mulling over the pros and cons of a long-term relationship – and chances are if you inhabit that demographic, that’s exactly what you’re doing – look no further for solace. Well, solace and a kick in the pants.
You’ll find it in the electrically charged air between a small-town dentist by the subtle name of Valentine (Gray Powell) and the object of his conflicted desire, a buttoned-up feminist Gloria (Julia Course). Their relationship – frustrated at times, madly passionate at others – will resonate with any young couple engaged in the delicate and often impossible negotiation between the ephemeral ideals of love and the grim practicalities of life.
You could easily explore the thin line between love and hate by switching on any Bravo reality show, of course. But Jim Mezon’s production – fueled by Powell’s perfectly calibrated insanity in the role of Valentine and inspired as much by Shaw as by “Looney Tunes” – performs this task with much more grace and intelligence. And without commercials.
The story is a quintessentially Shavian construction: a complex family backdrop of exceeding improbability, the better to foreground the astonishingly simple conflict at its heart.
Valentine is a down-on-his-luck dentist in a small town by the water – could be Buffalo, could be Niagara-on-the-Lake, but in this case it’s an anonymous seaside resort in England. Gloria is the eldest child of the celebrated proto-feminist Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon (Tara Rosling) and has just returned with her mother and daffy twin siblings (the hilarious Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Jennifer Dzialoszynski) from an 18-year stay on the Island of Madeira.
They’re easing into their return to the home country, by spending the summer in a seaside resort operated by an affable waiter (Edmund Stapleton). The only trouble: Mrs. Clandon’s husband and the siblings’ father (Patrick McManus), an insufferable curmudgeon who the family long ago abandoned, was accidentally invited to lunch.
The setup is so absurd only Shaw could have dreamed it up. But it works quite well, thanks in large part to Mezon’s ever-attendant exploitation of the script’s built-in absurdities and his cast’s skill at amplifying them even further by strategically hamming it up (Jackman-Torkoff) or slyly underplaying it (Stepleton).
Amid that fantastical setup are some of Shaw’s most memorable speeches on class, love and feminism. They’re delivered not with the wearying deference that hobbles too many Shaw productions, but with tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout.
It all plays out in glorious high-definition on Leslie Frankish’s playful set and in her motley costumes, lit smartly by Kimberly Purtell and augmented by innovative and understated projections of sea and sky by Cameron Davis that put you right in the thick of the madness.
And where else would you rather be?
3.5 stars (Out of four)
What: “You Never Can Tell”
When: Through Oct. 25
Where: Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Tickets: $30 to $142.38
Info: (800) 5117429 or shawfest.com