NEW YORK — As the Victorian era drew to a close, older generations were confounded by modern ideas such as "equality" for women.
George Bernard Shaw mocked these rapidly changing times in his 1893 satire, "The Philanderer," which is currently performing off-Broadway in a sparkling revival by The Pearl Theatre Company.
Shaw based the comedy, considered quite shocking in its day, on his own experience in a love triangle, while also managing to present larger ideas about stifling societal restrictions on the roles of men and women, and satirizing people's attempts to break loose by relying too much on modern thinking and scientific principles.
In the play, it's all playwright Henrik Ibsen's fault, as the characters are trying to be very modern and live in the mode of Ibsen's "advanced thinking" which had caught on after his play "A Doll's House" was performed in London. Shaw's play is filled with cynical humor, as when the leading man says archly, "The fickleness of the women I love is equaled only by the constancy of those I don't."
Bradford Cover has the title role, giving a nicely self-aware, wry and charming characterization of ladies' man Leonard Charteris, a philandering thorn caught between two roses. His manipulative, weepy former lady friend, Julia Craven (a madcap, comic performance by Karron Graves) refuses to let him go, while his new love, widow Grace Tranfield (given an intelligent, subtle air by Rachel Botchan) refuses to commit to him.
Charteris continually twists the new ideas presented by the fledgling feminist movement to achieve his own goals, and the battle between the sexes is on, as both women engage in wit-filled arguments with him, and with one another, while he attempts to redirect Julia's affection toward another suitor
Gus Kaikkonen directs wisely, emphasizing the little details of Shavian humor while keeping Julia's tantrums in control, even as Graves gets plenty of laughter from her well-controlled melodramatic moments.
All the younger characters belong to the Ibsen Club, a progressive place that allows both men and women to intermingle, as long as the women are not "too womanly" and the men are not "too manly."
The women's fathers are an essential part of the comedy, providing the backward views of the older generation. Dan Daily is delightfully blustery as Colonel Craven, and Dominic Cuskern is charming as Grace's father, Joseph Cuthbertson, who tries to keep up with the changing times and has even joined the Ibsen Club himself.
Chris Mixon is pompously funny as Dr. Percy Paramore, who has told the Colonel he only has a year to live, until his "scientific research" is proven false in the only slow scene. But the production quickly spices up again, as his lovesick yearnings are revealed. Rounding out the cast is Shalita Grant, giving a bright performance as Julia's younger sister Sylvia, a truly liberated young woman who likes to wear men's clothing.
Sam Fleming's richly detailed costumes help define the era, and Jo Winiarski's convertible set design makes the scene changes an in-character amusement. This merry production of "The Philanderer" is in a limited run at New York City Center Stage II through Feb. 19.