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OVERRULED

Touchstone Theatre

at the Halsted Theatre Centre

Exasperatingly perverse, George Bernard Shaw often seemed to waffle on many big issues. Though he liked to pretend that he could cut through the cant about marriage, adultery, and feminism, he could waver spectacularly on these volatile matters, at various times treating marriage, for instance, as a refuge from shoddy thinking (Candida) and as a gilded cage that threatens to stifle his all-important "Life Force" (Don Juan in Hell). As for the crime against it, Shaw could deem infidelity both a healthy protest meant to shake up a moribund institution and a shameful disloyalty that strikes at the core of society--all depending on the wronged partner he'd created.

Which is only to say that Shaw was too great a playwright to let ideas get in the way of persuasive characters. As often as not--though this flies in the face of the popular conception of a cold-blooded, system-mongering Shaw--it's the characters who lead the ideas along in his plays.

But Overruled, a one-act comedy first produced in 1912, is unburdened by memorable characters and could pass for an illustrated lecture on Shavian uncertainty, a playful curiosity that's not great theater but should please Shaw's fans. As usual, the ever-dialectical playwright tries to have it both ways. The 45-minute play depicts two seemingly adulterous couples at an English seaside hotel; they're embedded in some delightfully cerebral crises that could never for a moment pass for passion.

Gregory Lunn, a young married man, is smitten by Mrs. Juno, an older married woman he met on a romantic ocean cruise. He discovers rather abruptly that she is not a widow at the same time that she learns that he is not single. For Gregory that discovery changes everything: conscience-stricken, he refuses to admit that he sinned in intent, no matter what else he may have done (the question of whether actual adultery occurred is sedulously skirted). The lady, however, is merely confused--a more honest reaction.

The other couple, also conveniently staying at this hotel, are of course their supposedly wronged spouses. Mr. Juno, the stereotypically repressed Englishman, is weary of his domestic felicity and wants desperately to sin and to suffer (as long as it can be done with the utmost respectability). But the object of his guilty wishes, Mrs. Lunn, enjoys being worshipped from afar and contentedly holds the line at purely verbal ardor.

The cynical Shaw, ever ready to show how raging against conventions is the next step to succumbing to them, presents us with two false libertines--one a hypermoral husband who seeks to deny whatever trespass he committed and another a husband who embraces "immorality" but is pretending to an illicit romance that exists only in his mind. Though the childish men indulge in a feint at fisticuffs, it's a standoff--a moral draw.

A Touchstone Theatre dark-night production, Sandra Grand's staging reinforces the script by adding as an introduction excerpts from Shaw's preface to the play. Here he describes it as a "clinical study of polygamy" and labels adultery a "melodramatic bore" that must be tricked out with farcical diversions if it's going to carry any dramatic weight. A typical case of Shavian special pleading and overexplanation, the preface nonetheless plays as interestingly as the mannered play itself--and revealingly sounds little different from the arch, pointed dialogue.

The performances manage the requisite drawing-room sparkle. W. Earl Brown's blunt John Bull caricature as Mr. Juno is a comedic gem of false bluster and empty platitudes. Jenifer Tyler brings a brittle dignity to the basically reactive part of Mrs. Juno; Steve Larson plays her prudish, lovesick suitor with self-deflating ardor. Karen L. Stephens, as the unprudishly virtuous Mrs. Lunn, cleverly suggests a wife who, even if she won't give in to temptation, still desires to know she can be untrue.

William Underwood's playfully melodic score sets the mood for a work that Shaw chose to call a farce. But, typically for him, it's far too burdened with argument and paradox to be any such thing. Don't expect slamming doors--there's not even one.

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