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Stage Review

At the Publick, a witty poke at hypocrisy

Heather Wood and Alejandro Simoes in Shaw's 'Misalliance.' Heather Wood and Alejandro Simoes in Shaw's "Misalliance." (Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography)

"Talk, talk, talk!" exclaims the exasperated young Hypatia, who's the fiercest combatant on one side of the parent-child war in George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance." And talk everyone does -- cleverly, amusingly, extensively, exhaustively -- throughout the Publick Theatre production's slender two hours. The play is a natural for the company, which continues this year to move beyond Shakespeare and explore the other possibilities of its slogan, "demonstrating the power of the spoken word."

Shaw knew that power, for sure; he also knew that the spoken word could knock you out, sometimes undermining his own efforts to illuminate audiences by punching out their lights with a relentless volley of speech. So one of the delights of this play is its many slyly self-deprecating references to its own garrulity, which become even funnier when, as with Hypatia, they arrive in the form of verbose complaints about everyone's verbosity.

But what, you wonder, do they talk about? The usual Shavian smorgasbord: capitalism, imperialism, feminism, socialism, even Shaw's pet topic, vegetarianism. (Can a vegetarian keep a pet? Or, for that matter, serve a smorgasbord? Oh, dear, the giddy garrulity is infectious.)

Anyway. It's all here, and more besides, notably a plane crash in the greenhouse, a fistfight or two, and an unstable young intruder in the Turkish bath. Oh, and a Polish acrobat.

But at the heart of it all is Shaw's mischievous fascination with social hypocrisy, and particularly with the way parents preach morality to their children in blithe disregard of their own less than moral practices. Hypatia's father, John Tarleton of Tarleton's Underwear, presents a respectable bourgeois facade and wants his daughter to do the same. But he's had countless affairs, and he's also told his daughter to think for herself and speak her mind. It's only a matter of time before the clash between respectability and reason explodes with a bang, around the same time that airplane lands with a crash.

Though the Publick has wisely pruned some of the more overgrown speeches, there are still moments when the characters seem less like people than like megaphones for Shaw's ideas. But when the ideas are expressed as entertainingly as this, it's hard to mind too much. And Diego Arciniegas directs his strong cast with focus and drive; the longer the speech, the faster he races us through it, so we never quite have time to grow restless.

On Wednesday's opening night, the threatening clouds restrained themselves, but gusts of wind sometimes blasted annoyingly through the sound system's speakers. Even without that handicap, the stage seems to have some odd acoustical dead spots; in particular, Adam Soule, otherwise amusing as Hypatia's chuckleheaded brother, seemed to drift in and out of earshot as he walked around Janie Howland's airy, wicker-filled (though oddly Southwestern) set.

Heather Wood makes Hypatia a picture of frustrated energy, bursting to escape the strictures of young-ladyhood. As Bentley, her rabbity, quivering upper-class twit of a suitor, Stephen Libby is hilariously effete; even the comic accent affected by Alejandro Simoes as his friend Joey Percival doesn't conceal the likely outcome of any romantic rivalry between the two. And Gabriel Kuttner is drolly bitter as the interloper, whose role is better seen than described.

As for the older generation, Owen Doyle strikes a nice balance between vitality and absurdity as the senior Mr. Tarleton, and M. Lynda Robinson gives his wife an appropriate warmth, genuineness, and earthy good humor. Steven Barkhimer, meanwhile, delivers Lord Summerhays's epigrams with a full appreciation of their rhythm and wit.

That leaves only the acrobat, Lina Szczepanowska, adroitly played by Debera Ann Lund. She gets full support from an outrageous pair of purple boots, which are rivaled in Rachel Padula-Shufelt's costume design only by Bentley's ridiculous plus-fours.

"Were we very dull?" Lord Summerhays asks apologetically, when Hypatia pauses for breath in a rant against the endless talk of her elders.

"Not at all: you were very clever," she replies. "That's what's so hard to bear, because it makes it so difficult to avoid listening."

By the end of the night, for better and worse, you'll know exactly what she means.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

Misalliance

Play by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by: Diego Arciniegas. Set, Janie Howland. Costumes, Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Lights, John Cuff. Sound, John Doerschuk.

At: Publick Theatre, Brighton, through Sept. 9. Tickets, $32. 617-782-5425, publicktheatre.com

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