Chicago Theatre Review
The Droll Dentist of Devon
You Never Can Tell – ShawChicago
In an English seaside town, a five-shilling dentist named Valentine finishes pulling a tooth, while entertaining dozens of rapid-fire questions posed by his insatiably curious patient. In a barrage of babble the childlike Dolly and her twin brother Philip interrogate the young doctor, because he’s the first real Englishmen they’ve met since moving from Madeira to Devon, England. In true Shavian style, the playwright goes on to examine certain controversial 19th century social issues by having them debated by amusingly quirky characters displaying surprising behavior.
The comedy opens with a slightly befuddled Valentine, played with eloquent muddled perfection by the handsome, talented Christian Gray, just completing a dental procedure on his first patient, young Dolly Clandon, portrayed with brilliance by ShawChicago newcomer, Allison Cook. Ms. Cook sets the bar high with her enthusiastic eruptions of side-splitting, spontaneous non sequiturs. She’s matched beat-for-beat by Zachary Paul Lawrence as Philip, her gleefully effervescent twin brother. The stage bubbles with high-spirited hilarity whenever these young actors appear. But in fairness, each and every actor turns in a thoroughly charming, completely realized performance.
Bob Scogin has directed his readers theater production with especially perfect pacing and attention to detail. His ensemble’s mastery of language and British dialect is spot-on. Mr. Scogin smartly keeps this chatty comedy moving full speed ahead, but without rushing, allowing Shaw’s “word music” to fall easily on the ear. And the cast’s suggestion of period costumes, particularly Dolly and Philip’s whimsical party finery, are well-chosen and fun.
William, the charming, sagacious head waiter at the exclusive Marine Hotel dispenses bon mots of wisdom with the same care and fastidiousness with which he lays the table for afternoon tea. And, as each precisely enunciated piece of advice ends with, “You never can tell,” William proves to be absolutely correct. The typical Shavian play tends to be more intellectual and long-winded than most comedies. However, Shaw wrote this play to prove that, like his contemporary, the successfully popular Oscar Wilde, he could also write a mainstream comedy of manners much in the style of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Audiences may be surprised at the uncharacteristic frivolity found here.
As in the funniest comedies, the play begins with mistaken identities and ends in joyous resolution. Mrs. Clandon (the elegant, talented and veddy British-sounding Mary Michell), is the prototype of the modern New Woman. She’s the divorced mother of Dolly, Philip and pretty twenty-something Gloria, as well as the author of a series of Victorian self-help books for progressive ladies. Gloria has modeled herself after her mother, right down to maintaining that a life without a man is perfectly fine. But that all changes when Valentine professes his love-at-first-sight for her. And when Valentine’s irascible landlord, Mr. Crampton (a solid Skip Lundby), turns out to be the children’s estranged father, the Clandon’s life really begins to take an unexpected turn. Gray’s hysterically ardent Valentine easily dominates his every scene, particularly when coupled with the lovely, verbal and vivacious Barbara Zahora, as Gloria. As their passion ramps up to a frenzy in the final scene there is little doubt how this will all end.
And speaking of scenes, veteran Chicago thespian Jack Hickey easily steals every one of them as William the waiter. Whether serving refreshments or dishing out advice, Mr. Hickey is perfection as the gracious, fatherly waiter, the very essence of the gentleman’s gentleman. William’s arrogant barrister son Bohun is played with bravado by the wonderful Jesse Dornan, while Jonathan Nichols makes a delectable, deadpan intermediary as Finch M’Comas, the fussy family solicitor.
Bob Scogin has brought another of his entertaining concerts of spoken word to the stage for all to enjoy. More accessible and funnier than many other George Bernard Shaw plays, this tale of the droll dentist of Devon, along with his circle of friends and acquaintances, is a sheer delight. ShawChicago’s latest professionally polished production of comedy for serious people joyously closes their 22nd successful season. And, it just goes to show that with a Shaw comedy, you never can tell.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 5-28 by ShawChicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling ShawChicago at 312-587-7390 or by going to www.shawchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com