When George Bernard Shaw wrote his 1903 Man and Superman, he apologized in a letter for its sententiousness, describing himself as having “the temperament of a schoolmaster and the pursuits of a vestryman.” Shaw, that world-famous rabble-rouser and scandalizer, knew that people might expect his contemporary take on Don Juan to advance into spicier realms than philosophical debate. Even now, and even in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s intelligent, charming production, Superman’s comic candy-coating sends more of a message than its defiantly antiromantic center. How dreadful for Shaw that he was such an efficient entertainer, his passionate arguments so frequently indistinguishable from badinage.
In the play, Shaw’s Juan is free-love advocate Jack Tanner (an overemphasizing Max Gordon Moore), whose antiestablishment fears make him flee wedding-minded minx Ann (Janie Brookshire). Meanwhile, their friend Violet (Margaret Loesser Robinson) and her secret American husband (Zachary Spicer) try to winkle an allowance from his father, a packet of dollars for their love’s true consummation. The absurdity of turn-of-the-century mores—embodied here by the wonderful, harrumphing Brian Murray—fall immediately to Shaw’s ironic jabs, and we spend nearly three hours enjoying variations on that one joke.
Director David Staller emphasizes the hard brightness of Shaw the aphorism maker by bracketing acts with choruses of Shaw’s pithy sayings and keeping us, despite scenes set in sultry Spain, constantly within designer James Noone’s gorgeous white-and-gold drawing room. Even in the notorious “Don Juan in Hell” dream sequence, we never think about the bodies beneath the clothes, let alone the skulls beneath the skin. Still, we’re happy enough being amused by Shaw’s titanic, agitated brain, distracted by his thoughts as though by jeweled, slightly vicious butterflies.—Helen Shaw