Josh Tyson and Amy Fitts in The Man of Destiny
(© Gerry Goodstien)
Josh Tyson and Amy Fitts in The Man of Destiny
(© Gerry Goodstien)
Hanging aslant over Maruti Evans' clean, well-lit set for the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's disappointing production of George Bernard Shaw's typically chatty one-act, The Man of Destiny, now at The Wild Project, is a large, beautifully reproduced detail of Jacques-Louis David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." While the presence of this majestic portrait -- in which Napoleon sits atop a bounding charger -- allows audience members to notice the impressive resemblance between actor Josh Tyson and the former French emperor, the performer simply doesn't measure up to the man in the painting.

What transpires in this typically Shavian battle of the sexes involves dispatches that Napoleon, in conflict with the Austrian army at Lodi, is expecting his lieutenant (Brian A. Costello) to deliver. Those missives, however, go astray when the ineffectual man entrusts them to a seemingly ineffectual man (Amy Fitts) whom he's met on his important journey. As it happens, the double-dealing young man turns out to have been a woman in disguise -- a woman who has just checked in at an obviously popular hostelry run by the obsequious Giuseppe (Craig Smith, striking the right tone).

Napoleon and the lady are soon engaging at giddy length in the playwright's standard level of witty repartee. Their banter centers around whether he'll entice her to hand over the letters and, when she does, whether she'll entice him to return them -- or at least the one which seems to have value to her for personal reasons that are never explained.

Under Amy Wagner's direction, Tyson struts about the stage with his left arm constantly akimbo -- an irritating affectation that nonetheless might be a deliberate character choice. While the performance is mostly uneven, Tyson is able to invigorate a rather long tirade during which Napoleon stops interacting with the lady long enough to deliver Shaw's famed speech in which England is called "a nation of shopkeepers."

It's also a pity that Fitts' interactions with Tyson lack the kind of two-for-the-seesaw power dynamic this sort of dialogue demands. Too often here, the air leaks out of Shaw's words, and a play that in other hands can sparkle becomes tediously lackluster.