Like his other writings, George Bernard Shaw's semi-autobiographical play The Philanderer is foremost a work of ideas—in this case, his ideas about marriage. Like Shaw himself (who was quite the ladies' man), Leonard Charteris is a philosopher and philanderer. But now he's stuck: he can't break off his romantic relationship with Julia Craven because she won't let him.
Craven's devotion is precisely the kind of "weakness" Charteris despises. As he reminds Julia, "Advanced people form charming friendships. Conventional people marry."
Because both are members of the Ibsen Club, dedicated to discussing and following the Norwegian playwright's progressive views on male-female roles, Charteris figures Julia should understand and let him follow his philandering instincts. He has already moved on to his next companion, Grace Tranfield, a woman who actually embodies the qualities of an unfettered "new woman."
With the exception of a confusing, added-on prologue in which Charteris preaches Ibsenisms, South Coast Repertory director David Emmes and his professional cast understand and deliver Shaw's ideas, humor and complex characters. Douglas Weston's Charteris has just enough charisma to make the selfish cad likable; his appeal gives credence to Julia's "womanly" theatrics, which Nancy Bell amusingly throws herself into. Kaitlin Hopkins' Grace succeeds in making her character's aloofness admirable. Costume designer Walker Hicklin's gorgeous period finery highlights both women's personalities, particularly Julia's fiery black-and-red ensemble when she storms in on Charteris and Grace's amorous evening.
It's interesting that nearly 40 years after he wrote it, Shaw didn't think much of The Philanderer. Looking back on it in 1930, he reportedly dismissed it as too topical. That may be true of Ibsenism, but virtually everything else in the play—its fascination with men and women, its interest in medicine—is just as relevant. If the play suffers from anything, it's that it came from the hand of a still immature playwright. The Philanderer was Shaw's second play, and it reflects an artist just beginning to develop his formidable technical skills and to formulate his philosophy. SCR offers a fine production of this rarely produced play.
The Philanderer at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 10. $28-$47.