Dominic Cuskern and Karron Graves
in The Philanderer
(© Jacob J Goldberg)
Dominic Cuskern and Karron Graves
in The Philanderer
(© Jacob J Goldberg)
George Bernard Shaw tweaks the Edwardian ideals of "manly men" and "womanly women," even as he jests about an alternative to such gender roles in The Philanderer, which Pearl Theatre Company is currently offering at New York City Center Stage II.

It's a merry lark that brims with laughs and thought-provoking ideas, and though there may be a few barren stretches in which director Gus Kaikkonen and his talented cast find themselves stymied by some of the playwright's contrivances, the production ultimately proves terrifically satisfying.

At the center of the play is Leonard Charteris (Bradford Cover), the play's "philanderer" who has fallen in love with Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan), a widow who shares his affinity for the works of Henrik Ibsen and the ideas his plays espouse. For example, both Charteris and Tranfield believe that no man or woman should be the other's property, and each are members of an Ibsen club where behaving according to societal norms (for either sex) is prohibited.

Charteris' affection for Tranfield has only developed after his relationship with Julia Craven (Karron Graves) has soured: he has come to realize that she is not the assured "new woman" that he had imagined, but rather, one who has adopted modern behaviors as a sort of fashion, easily discarding them for qualities he detests, including fierce jealousy, neediness, and bursts of hysteria.

Both women's fathers -- the upright Colonel Craven (made a wonderfully pompous stuffed-shirt by Dan Daily) and the more progressive Joseph Culbertson (played solidly by Dominic Cuskern) -- watch their daughters' romantic foibles with both bemusement and bewilderment. So does Dr. Percy Paramore (Chris Mixon), a member of the Ibsen Club, who carries a torch for Julia.

The play proves most satisfying when old-world behavior conflicts against that of the new. The production reaches daffy heights as Graves' Julia flails to delicious comic melodramatic effect against Cover's sensitively reserved Charteris, and when Botchan's superlatively cool Tranfield gives Julia a cutting dressing-down about her behavior, the show simply sizzles.

Equally enjoyable are the more farcical elements of the piece, which have almost nothing to do with Shaw's overarching conceit about old and new mores. When audiences finally learn the whereabouts of a small spaniel that Julia and her sister Sylvia (Shalita Grant) lost, stunned gasps mix with gales of laughter.

Although both the script and production stumble when the action centers on Paramore's medical quackery, audiences will find the director and cast quickly rebound as the play shifts back to its central conflict.

Kaikkonen's staging moves with ease between the Tranfields' home to the Ibsen Club and Paramore's home thanks to Jo Winiarski's cleverly flexible -- and beautifully elegant -- scenic design, and Sam Fleming provides some gorgeous gowns that help sweep audiences into this period.