His father was an alcoholic, a shy, ineffectual ne'er-do-well. His mother was mean-spirited and pretentious. This combination almost guaranteed the family’s continuing poverty. Their son never achieved more than the Victorian equivalent of a junior high school education.
And yet he became one of the greatest playwrights and most provocative thinkers of this century. George Bernard Shaw’s own life is the fittest justification for the title of this early play, which suggests that in two important areas – love and parenting – you can never make predictions.
Written 90 years ago, “You Never Can Tell” seems remarkably up-to-the-minute. It concerns a feminist who has trouble living up to the principles she has set forth in her books. The play is full of surprises and coincidences, with which Shaw deftly satirizes the accepted thinking of his time.
Most important, the comedy was Shaw’s attempt to show that he could make audiences laugh as readily as he could provoke or stimulate them.
Like most productions of classical plays at Circle in the Square, this one is humdrum. The play seems to have been done because it is well-known and has not been revived recently, not because anyone had a particularly good approach to it.
So we get the usual collection of English mannerisms, a lackadaisical attitude toward the rhythmic precision of Shaw’s language and, in several performances, a neurotic irritability that substitutes for a clear understanding of the character.
There are exceptions, most notably Victor Garber, who presents novel ideas about both romance and dentistry with perfect irony and a keen sense of the music in the lines.
Philip Bosco catches much of the humor in the role of a know-it-all waiter, but he rarely goes beyond a kind of dignified amiability. Stephen McHattie handles the role of Bosco’s brilliant son with aplomb.
Curiously, the role of the militant feminist is more interesting for what is said about her than what she actually does. Uta Hagen handles the part capably but it leaves a muted impression.
Overall, the production is wearing, like listening to a 45 rpm record at 33.
Time plays strange tricks on history, and few things are more unpredictable than the future of a reputation.
In his day, and its, George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell” was accepted as a pleasant light comedy, but not taken quite as seriously as some of his more overtly controversial and, for that matter, political works.
Yet the play – as was again demonstrated by a generally lively revival that opened last night at the uptown Circle-in-the-Square – has proved one of the more durable of all in the Shavian canon, although it has been 40 years since it has been performed on Broadway.
Shaw was understandably obsessed with the new Eve and the old Adam – the new 20th-Century balance between the sexes, with the impact of feminism and that new Ibsenite woman, the pursuer, the conqueror, the desiring desirable.
In “You Never Can Tell,” Shaw shows us his classic clash between the sexes: jungle warfare between man and woman, with both behaving like civilized beasts.
It’s doubtful, from his writing, whether Shaw really ever had a genuinely sexual urge in his life; he writes like a vegetarian might of butchery. But he was extraordinarily acute in his intellectual appraisal of the new sexual equation between the freshly emancipated woman and the male of the species, gloriously unprepared for this new biology.
It seems Shaw did not think much of “You Never Can Tell.” He admitted that he wrote it for managers, who “wanted a comedy with the brilliance of ‘Arms and the Man,’ tempered to fashionable taste.”
Gloria, his heroine, and Valentine, his hero, are very much the prototypes of Ann Whitefield and John Tanner in “Man and Superman,” and this earlier play deals deftly with themes more pretentiously and preachily handled in the more ambitious major work.
The comic mechanism of “You Never Can Tell” is farcically geared, and clockworked into coincidence rather than character, yet it does function.
Absurd but precocious twins, a missing father, a militantly feminist mother, a waiter with a distinguished lawyer for a son, make a crazy but engaging background for the dizzily dueling lovers, this 20th-Century (the play was first produced in 1898) Beatrice and Benedick.
The director Stephen Porter does his best here, but the set designer Thomas Lynch all but throws in his hand, leaving what period atmosphere that can be evoked to the costumes, quite attractive, by Martin Pakledinaz.
With such a play as this in such a place, the casting is three-quarters of the battle, and here some of it is very right, and none of it is really very wrong. But it is a somewhat variable factor.
Luckily, the two best performances come in the play’s two best parts – Valentine the Don Juanish dentist, and William the exquisitely precise Waiter.
Victor Garber, who has never been better, brings off the coruscating scene of an urban wooing with virtuosic panache. He is splendid.
No less splendid, in a far seedier fashion, is Philip Bosco, who is perfect as the perfect waiter, from his almost defiant unctuousness to his tail-wagging eagerness to serve.
I also loved Amanda Plummer, sexily cheeky as the irrepressibly dangerous Dolly. John David Cullum also acts with aplomb as her twin brother, and Lise Hilboldt starts slowly but flares up effectively as Gloria.
The rest are altogether less impressive, including Uta Hagen. Although she’s a lot more convincing than she was earlier this year in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” she still rolls her syllables like an imitation of Dame Edith Evans, which is particularly distressing for people who recall the real thing.
On the whole, I find “You Never Can Tell” far more acceptable than many of the better-known Shaw works. At times it seems like polemically inclined and slightly didactic Noel Coward. And that is not all bad.
Audiences and critics have never really arrived at a final judgment about ''You Never Can Tell,'' the early Shaw comedy now receiving a new Broadway staging at the Circle in the Square. Then again, its author was of two minds about the last of his so-called ''pleasant plays,'' too. ''Did you really read 'You Never Can Tell'?'' Shaw asked Ellen Terry in a letter of 1897. ''Could anyone read it? It maddens me. I'll have my revenge in the preface by offering it as a frightful example of the result of trying to write for the theater de nos jours.'' Yet the piece eventually proved a popular commercial venture of its day, rather than a frightful replica of one, and soon Shaw was declaring it an ''absolutely actor proof'' entertainment.
Even so, the play has never enjoyed the well-received revivals in New York that it's had elsewhere. The current version is likely to beg the question of the comedy's durability still further. Whatever this work is, it's certainly not actor proof. During the Circle in the Square's inconsistently cast and directed rendering, the languors could tempt one to consign ''You Never Can Tell'' forever to the junk heap of Shavian trivia. But when masterly performers do take charge - as happens in a few of the substantial roles on this occasion - the humor becomes so astringent that one wonders whether more concerted effort might wake up the entire text.
The great delight, and arguably the savior, of the present company is Victor Garber, in the role Shaw saw as most crucial, the dentist Valentine. Although Mr. Garber, the addled lothario of ''Noises Off,'' is no stranger to light comedy, he has never previously achieved the effortless precision of this characterization. Valentine is an old-fashioned ''duelist of sex,'' a 19th-century rake determined to toy with a 20th-century New Woman named Gloria Clandon (Lise Hilboldt). It's Shaw's cruel trick that Valentine outsmarts himself, and it's Mr. Garber's funny achievement that the dentist receives his comeuppance without ever misplacing his charm or keen intelligence. ''I don't know anything about women: 12 years' experience is not enough,'' concludes Valentine near evening's end, as Gloria's dread marital noose tightens around his neck. Mr. Garber, frazzled but still good natured, becomes a rare asset that would grace any comedy -a winning loser.
Earlier, he's been just as endearing, whether extracting a tooth from a patient or devotion from his female prey. Gloria is an emancipated, no-nonsense, scientifically educated woman who will hear no talk of love or erotic passion but is not immune to a suitor's musings about romantic ''chemistry'' or his ''oxygenated blood.'' Wearing a natty suit and straw boater befitting the Edwardian seaside-resort setting, Mr. Garber subjects Gloria to an irresistible snow job of shameless flattery, boyish pique and intellectual guile. ''I learned how to circumvent the Women's Rights woman before I was 23,'' he boasts. While his self-congratulation proves premature, it's one of the play's enduring strengths that Shaw is as tough on pompous, unbending feminists as he is on piggish men like Valentine who make feminism a moral imperative.
Stephen Porter, the director, is slow to acknowledge this point, with the consequence that his production sags badly early on. The play's guiding feminist is Gloria's mother, Mrs. Clandon, ''an author of great repute in Madeira'' whose works include ''20th-Century Women'' and other tracts devoted to ''advanced ideas'' and ''the cause of humanity.'' As played by Uta Hagen, the woman is subdued, all-wise and earnestly maternal; we find no trace of Mrs. Clandon's implicit, satirically intended fatuousness (or of the ideological fire that the same actress brought to Shaw's Mrs. Warren last season). Ms. Hagen's misconceived, if smoothly executed, performance is all too in keeping with Mr. Porter's strangely dour, laughter-smothering approach to much of the play's first half. When Mrs. Clandon returns from Madeira to England with her three adult children at the outset, we can quickly guess that she'll be reunited with the oppressive husband she left behind 18 years earlier. But while the chance reunion is too preposterous a coincidence to be other than an antic authorial prank, Mr. Porter insists on overdramatizing the ''surprise'' with mournful pacing and acting that turn Shavian mock-farce into treacly melodrama.
The evening's subsequent, partial recovery is due not only to Mr. Garber, but also to Philip Bosco, as an omniscient waiter who is far from proud that his son has become a flourishing barrister. In addition to fielding Shaw's paradigmatic inversions of class snobbery - the waiter finds being a gentleman's father a dubious ''accident of birth'' -Mr. Bosco makes each round of drink orders a lesson in high-comedy panache. In this actor's delivery, as plebeian a beverage as ''lager'' can sound like the nectar of wit. As the waiter's son, Stephen McHattie could also be Mr. Bosco's artistic progeny: His fierce comic concentration ignites a last-scene cameo appearance in which the barrister tells every character where and how to get off at the final curtain.
The other performances are generally serviceable, which isn't always enough to carry this script. One wishes that the various metamorphoses of Miss Hilboldt's persuasively priggish Gloria were as intricate as the quick changes of Mr. Garber's Valentine, and that Stefan Gierasch, as her long-lost father, revealed more of the affection-starved man beneath the barking tyrant. Still, incomplete characterizations are preferable to Amanda Plummer's burlesque turn as Gloria's kid sister, Dolly. Fine as Ms. Plummer can be in contemporary American roles, she gives her mannerisms full vent here, milking laughs with outrageous accents ranging from Cockney Daffy Duck to late Bette Davis. (At her most impenetrable, her lines sound as if they'd been translated into Welsh.) An unjust victim of this display is John David Cullum, whose promising portrayal of Dolly's brother must bend to his partner's blustery winds.
Not entirely without reason, the otherwise reliable Martin Pakledinaz costumes Ms. Plummer and Mr. Cullum as if they were on their way to a Lewis Carroll rather than a Shavian tea party. The set designer, Thomas Lynch, is also erratic: He tops the vast arena with the cheery crown of a bygone gazebo, but covers the floor with an eggshell blue that threatens to move ''You Never Can Tell'' from the seashore to the bottom of a swimming pool. Don't leap in expecting to find a deep end.