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Review: Oh Candida, You Were Made for London, Not New York

The Gingold Group has produced an updated version of Bernard Shaw's response to A Doll's House.

David Ryan Smith, Avery Whitted, Avanthika Srinivasan, Amber Reauchean Williams, Peter Romano, and R.J. Foster in Bernard Shaw's Candida, directed by David Staller for the Gingold Theatrical Group at Theatre Row.
(© Carol Rosegg)

There was a time when Bernard Shaw's early play Candida (pronounced CAN-di-da) was all the rage. That was around 1903 when it first ran on Broadway, and "Candidamania" (as the New York Sun newspaper called it) had taken hold of the rialto. It has remained a favorite among Shaw enthusiasts, for good reason, even as it has gradually become one of his less frequently produced plays. If anyone is going to do it well, though, you'd think it would be the Gingold Theatrical Group, whose Project Shaw is devoted to keeping all 65 of his plays and sketches in the public eye.

Which makes its current production at Theatre Row a bit of a mystery (Shaw used that very word to describe his play). Director David Staller has updated the time and place of this Candida to Harlem in 1929, along with some un-Shavian references to subways, the Lower East Side, and the recent stock market crash (sound designer Michael Costagliola gets that information to us via a small radio).

These sorts of revisions aren't bad in and of themselves, but they do become something of a distraction in a play whose language and characters, by their nature, feel more British than American, despite a multi-ethnic cast of six who do their best to make it seem otherwise. R.J. Foster leads the way as the Rev. James Morell, a Christian socialist whose prowess as an orator makes him one of the most sought-after speakers in the city. His wife, Candida (Avanthika Srinivasan giving a straightforward performance), is practically perfect in every way — sound in judgment, attentive as a wife and mother, and independent in spirit. The problem arises when a flamboyant young poet, Eugene Marchbanks (a splendidly over-the-top Avery Whitted), confesses his love for Candida, throwing the household into confusion, and Candida must choose which man, if either, she'll remain with.

Perhaps the most American thing about Staller's production is Lindsay Genevieve Fuori's extraordinarily detailed and very busy set; it's just bursting with stuff, like a room you might see on Hoarders. Pictures occupy every inch of wall space, while books, stuffed animals, and bric-a-brac fill the bookcases and line the floors and staircases of Rev. Morell's office. It's practically another character, one that might just be more interesting that any of the chatty Cathys we're about to meet.

And there's no getting around the talkiness of Candida (hat's off to anyone whose attention doesn't occasionally wander back to those myriad pictures and knickknacks). We listen to, among other things, typically Shavian conversations about capitalism and socialism between Morell and Candida's nouveau riche father, Mr. Burgess, played with buoyant bubbliness by David Ryan Smith, wearing a spiffy three-piece suit (costume design by Dustin Cross). His delivery, sadly, lacks the ironic cockney Shaw gave the character, and despite Smith's energetic performance, most of the laughs get lost in translation. As the reverend's curate, Lexy, Peter Romano gets a moment to shine with a comic line or two, as does Amber Reauchean Williams in her role as the punctilious secretary, Proserpine Garnett; she gets an 11th-hour laugh that is the closest this production comes to a knee-slapper.

Not that Candida is full of them to begin with. Shaw wrote the play as a response to Ibsen's A Doll's House, saying that "in the real typical doll's house it is the man who is the doll." So there are weighty conversations to be had about the institution of marriage, what is means, what it's good for, and so on. But without a lot of Shaw's distinctly British comedic sugar to help medicine like that go down, Candida can be a bit of a slog to sit through, even at only 100 minutes. This production might best have kept its cockney accents intact and trusted this same talented cast to land the jokes on British soil.