They don't call him "Robert Shaw Leonard" yet, but give 'em time.
Robert Sean Leonard is busily embroiled in another George Bernard Shaw antic -- the second such RSL/GBS meeting-of-minds at New York's Roundabout Theatre -- and he's going after the role with all the earnest, unguarded ardor of a young man in love.
Having been down this road before -- five years ago, playing Marchbanks to Mary Steenburgen's Candida (a role that Marlon Brando did in another day opposite Katharine Cornell) and earning a Tony nomination for the effort -- Leonard knows well that love is not something Shaw believes in taking lightly.
In You Never Can Tell his character is plainly marked with the name of Valentine, a dentist who takes a sudden shine to a damsel as thoroughly modern as Victorian society gets (Katie Finneran). The rub, as well as the subplot, is that he accidentally causes the reunion of the young lady's long-estranged parents (Simon Jones and Helen Carey), which, in turn, requires a bullying barrister (Jere Shea) and his father, a subservient waiter (Charles Keating), to sort out before the course of true love can run smoothly again.
"When Shaw wrote this play," says Leonard, "it was right at the turn of the century, and he was very tired of -- well, basically, Oscar Wilde but especially The Importance of Being Earnest. He felt it was very cold -- felt that a West End comedy about manners and society didn't necessarily have to be without heart -- so he wrote this. This was his answer to Earnest. The word earnest appears quite a bit in this. It was a quality very important to Shaw. He didn't know what sarcasm was. It was considered vulgar. There is no sarcasm in his plays. Everyone says what they mean, all the time, even if they're lying about love. They'd never say something, and then spin it in such a way it would mean something else.
"And, I must say, earnestness means a lot to me, too. Obviously, I was born at the wrong time. In this Quentin Tarantino kind of world of entertainment, earnestness is looked upon as sentimentality, something to be avoided. I've grown up praising earnestness. I love it when people risk that, when people truly have their hearts on the line and risk something instead of being sardonic. It's a hard thing to pull off these days. We're trained as actors not to be innocent and earnest and open. It's much more interesting to have a goatee and smoke and be cool.
"My sister is an English teacher, and she's teaching Our Town, but her kids just don't get it. It's a perfect play -- maybe the best play. When Emily dies in childbirth, it's so sharp and smart. What more can you say to people other than 'Life is short -- look the people you love in the eye and try to cherish every moment'? Boy! I can't think of a better message."
Finneran, who plays the object of Leonard's exuberant affections, is one of the few cast members with no history of Shaw whatsoever. In fact, she got here by way of Dogpatch, having recently appeared as Appassionata von Climax in the Encores! resurrection of Li'l Abner. Before that, she was an archetype blonde bimbo in Neil Simon's Proposals; but, if you give her credits another scratch, you'll find her closer to the Shavian period -- in a Victorian high-collar, playing the Irish maid who waited on Cherry Jones in The Heiress. "I'm fortunate to be able to make those wide swings, that people see me that way and allow me to try different things."
She credits You Never Can Tell's director, Nicholas Martin, with making her reentry into the turn of the century a smooth one. "It's a real talent to be able to establish a safe playground where actors can feel safe to try anything. They may fail miserably and turn red with humiliation or laugh about it, but they feel safe to try. Well, Nicky Martin is the best playground supervisor I've ever worked with. I felt so free to do just anything and make a fool of myself, but ultimately it made me feel like a superhero, that I could do anything in front of him and in front of the ensemble. We laughed so much during rehearsals." The senior members of the cast, as one might expect, are heavily seasoned in Shaw. Keating last appeared at The Roundabout as Doolittle in Pygmalion and, before that, as Ridgeon in The Doctor's Dilemma; Carey did Heartbreak House, and Jones did Getting Married, and both of them count among their credits Arms and the Man and Candida.
Jones did the deputy vicar to Deborah Kerr's Candida once in London. "She was a very beautiful and elegant 58, but she had this line where she had to say, 'When you are 21, I shall be 35.' The audience always laughed, and I thought that was so unjust because the Shaw estate wouldn't let us change a word. I don't know if they're that strict now."
His best guess, though, is that they are -- given Shaw's controlling nature. "One's heart sinks when one approaches Shaw because he writes so rigidly," Jones confesses. "He even has spacing laid out on the text. I'd never noticed this before until somebody pointed it out at rehearsal, but the letters are wider-spaced for words he wanted to emphasize. He was determined -- even from beyond the grave -- to leave actors a vicelike blueprint."
Carey feels Shaw has dealt her a character with enough spunk and spine to qualify in this day and age as politically correct. "I like her enormously," she says, "and I think she has important things to say to an audience today. If you're a child who is involved with someone who is not looked upon as the perfect choice by your parents, it will speak loudly and clearly to you -- in a very funny way. It's the classic dynamic of different generations -- parents coming from one train of thought versus their children coming from another. I've always said, 'If you ever thought you had a new idea, go and read Shaw.' He seems to have mined every conceivable human relationship."
REFLECTIONS ON SHAW
"There is no sarcasm in his plays. Everyone says what they mean, all the time."
-- Robert Sean Leonard
"He was determined -- even from beyond the grave -- to leave actors a vicelike blueprint."
-- Simon Jones
"I've always said, 'If you ever thought you had a new idea, go
and read Shaw.' "
-- Helen Carey
-- By Harry Haun