“You never can tell,” intones the waiter, Walter, sagely summing up two hours of farce as only George Bernard Shaw can dish it out.
The California Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of the same name opened last weekend at the Bruns Amphitheater in the Berkeley-Orinda hills. It runs through Sept. 4.
While it may be true you never know what Shaw will imagine next, you can be fairly assured you will be laughing, while his characters writhe in the grips of silly societal mores.
In this case, we are transported to a seaside California resort, circa 1896, when Mrs. Clandon, a world-famous feminist and author, arrives after 18 years of exile in Caracas.
With her are her three children, with whom she fled to escape an abusive husband. Her eldest, daughter and disciple Gloria, has been raised on the principles of the new woman of the 19th century. The younger two, twins Philip and Dolly, while not perhaps of the same serious cut as their sister, have certainly enjoyed their freedom and continue to do so on their arrival back in the U.S.
It’s Dolly’s encounter with a “2 dollar dentist” named Valentine that sets the plot in action. Friendly as puppies turned loose on an unsuspecting world, the curious pair invite him to lunch, along with his landlord to whom the dentist, who has earned one fee in six weeks, owes significant back rent.
Valentine turns out to be a smooth-talking romantic who promptly falls for the upright Gloria. Accused of being a fortune hunter, he agrees. “Who could live on what I earn?” he asks practically.
Gloria is appalled to discover that her heart, although not her head, responds to him in an alarmingly non-new-woman way.
Further complications ensue when the landlord is revealed to be the unknown father of the three. No one is more horrified than he at encountering his family, especially the ex-wife who humiliated him. He decides there is nothing to be done but to gain custody and try to tame the rambunctious twins.
What’s to be done but to call in the lawyers?
“You Never Can Tell” might not be Shaw’s best, most profound work, but it certainly is a lot of fun, and filled with Shavian zingers. “Pretty speeches make sickly conversation,” the high-minded Gloria tells her amorous dentist, but nothing is weak in any of the conversations in this delightful, high-spirited romp through a seaside.
But can it have a happy ending? Yes, but as director Lisa Peterson notes, “It’s a romance feminists can love.” Even the eminent authority on women in a new world, Mrs. Clandon.
For tickets and information, visit CalShakes.org or call the box office at 510-548-9666.
Single tickets range from $20 to $84 with discounts available for seniors, students, groups and people 30 and under. Cal Shakes makes 20 available for $20 on a first-come, first-served basis for every performance.