You Never Can Tell is one of George Bernard Shaw’s lesser known-works, relatively infrequently performed in the United States, which is why we owe a special debt of thanks to the exceptionally talented cast now bringing it to life at the Gloria Maddox Theatre at T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre. Originally born out of a bet in 1897 that Shaw could not write a seaside comedy (a popular theatrical genre in England at that time), the play succeeds in offering both a comedic and insightful look at the institutions of marriage and the family, the “war between the sexes,” the “modern woman” of that time, class stratification – indeed, all of the issues that Shaw focused so much of his attention on throughout his extraordinary literary career.
Mrs. Clandon (Lucy Avery Brooke), a celebrated writer and independent New Woman, returns to seaside England with her three children - Gloria (Jessica Osborne), Phil (Seth James) and Dolly (Noelle P. Wilson) - after having spent 18 years in Madeira raising her children alone. Here they meet Valentine (Lowell Byers), a dashing but impecunious dentist and his curmudgeonly landlord, Mr. Crampton (Laurence Cantor). Valentine and Gloria are instantly smitten with one another (although it is not a new experience for either of them). The three children know nothing of their father, about whom their mother has never spoken, but they quickly discover that without some understanding of their paternal lineage they will never be accepted in polite society. As Valentine puts it to them, in initially rejecting their invitation to lunch:
“We don’t bother much about dress and manners in England, because, as a nation we don’t dress well and we have no manners. But…in a seaside resort, there’s one thing you must have before anybody can afford to be seen going about with you; and that’s a father, alive or dead. Am I to infer that you have omitted that indispensable part of your social equipment? Then I’m sorry to say that if you are going to stay here for any length of time, it will be impossible for me to accept your kind invitation to lunch.”
Of course, Valentine ultimately relents, joining the Clandons for lunch and bringing Mr. Crampton along with him (and, surprise, surprise, guess who he turns out to be?). It all gets sorted out in the end, with the able assistance of Walter (Peter Judd), the charming and wise waiter who cares lovingly for the Clandons; Mr. Bohun (Edwin Sean Patterson), Walter’s son who, despite England’s strict class distinctions, has risen to the level of Queen’s Counsel; and Mr. McComas (Randy Miles), Mrs. Clandon’s friend and solicitor.
While the plot of the play isn’t much, Shaw uses it to full advantage in exercising his acerbic wit and that alone would make seeing this play worthwhile. In addition, however, the cast of this production is terrific across-the-board, providing the audience with a most delightful afternoon or evening’s entertainment. This is an Off Off Broadway production, which often requires some cutting of corners due to financial constraints, but that clearly wasn’t the case here. In fact, if you don’t count the number of seats in the audience, you’ll be convinced that you’re attending a major off Broadway production. The sets and costumes are lush, worthy of a full blown Off Broadway production, and the acting and directing is as good as it ever gets.