In 1897 London, the concept of women’s equality with men was so preposterous it was actually beginning to catch on. For Leonard Charteris, title character of The Philanderer, it’s also a means to manipulate the two women in his orbit, much like playing with fire.
The Philanderer is the latest off-Broadway production of the Pearl Theatre Company, which excels at staging beautifully designed, quick-witted plays through especially clever actors. George Bernard Shaw’s rich, scorching dialogue in this engaging play lets sexist confusion bounce between characters, each seeming to form a new personal edict every passing second.
Charteris (Bradford Cover) is a sardonic bachelor smitten with Grace (Rachel Botchan), as well as the object of unbridled passion from Julia (Karron Graves). But the trouble really begins when the three begin using the fledgling feminist ideals of playwright Henrik Ibsen—whose concepts inspired Shaw and opened a world of dramatic possibilities—as devices to unravel each other’s rationales for romance vs. commitment.
Grace and Julia’s skeptical, old-guard fathers are wonderful supporting characters, adding to the almost farcical nature of the play. By contrast, Julia’s sassy younger sister Sylvia (Shalita Grant) adds levity through her cunning, and because she happens to prefer men’s clothing (and dapper she is).
Because of Sylvia’s gender playfulness, as well as the recurring question of the nature of “womanly women” and “manly men,” The Philanderer was scandalous enough in its day to have had a nine-year wait between completion and its first staging. And in this far less censored world, that should be reason enough to see it.
The Philanderer is directed by Gus Kaikkonen, and is presented by The Pearl Theatre Company at City Center Stage II, through February 19. Tickets are $39-$59, available via nycitycenter.org.