When playwright George Bernard Shaw created his original romantic comedy Candida in 1894, written in response to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House and first published in his Plays Pleasant collection in 1898, he set it in the London suburbs of his own Victorian era. In the new updated production by Gingold Theatrical Group, directed by GTG Founding Artistic Director David Staller and now playing a limited engagement at Theatre Row, the funny fast-paced one-act feminist rom-com has been moved to NYC’s Harlem Renaissance in 1929 (as suggested by Staller’s late friend Stephen Sondheim), when the upper Manhattan neighborhood emerged as a center of Black culture and a cornerstone in the movement for social and economic equality, and the Church was transferring popular clergymen to underserved neighborhoods with the hopes of bringing parishioners back. It’s a lively reimagining that honors the company’s mission of promoting Shaw’s humanitarian ideals and recognizing their universal relevance across time, place, and community, with a serious message that underlies the smart farcical humor.
The wild and witty whirlwind of a story takes place on a single day in the lavishly messy drawing room of the well-liked and in-demand Christian-Socialist Pastor James Morell and his strong, hardworking, and supportive wife Candida, where they and four very different members of their circle engage, confront, and challenge each other on such favorite Shavian issues as political and economic systems, religion and philosophy, love and marriage, and the feminist ideal of a woman’s right to make choices about her own life and what she wants in a partner.
It all comes to a head when her money-loving father Burgess (a ruthless Capitalist businessman who doesn’t get along with his son-in-law but wants an introduction from him to potential wealthy connections) and the ill-at-ease upper-class young poet Eugene Marchbanks (who is determined to win Candida’s heart and to rescue her from a dull life of drudgery with a complacent husband) arrive and challenge the Reverend, his beliefs, and his marriage. Added to that are Morell’s opinionated typist Prossy and his devoted curate Lexy, who adore him, and the stage is set for verbal fireworks as they face off with their convictions, harangues, and insults. In the end, Candida is put in the position by the pastor and the poet of having to choose between them. What will she decide, and why?
A spirited cast of six delivers the distinctive personalities and their divergent positions, competition, and jealousy with vigor, laughs, and uproarious bits of physical comedy. Avery Whitted as the nervous and sensitive, lovestruck and rhapsodic Eugene Marchbanks (who takes to falling to the floor in emotional distress) and David Ryan Smith as the charmingly conniving Burgess (a “scoundrel” to the Reverend’s “fool”) make for hilarious opponents of R.J. Foster’s Morell (whose preaching, it is noted, could be more guileful “rousing” than profound “truth”). Though he leaves his wife alone for the evening with Marchbanks and his “puppy love,” he begins to wonder if their relationship is in trouble, before realizing how much she does for him and how much she means to him. Avanthika Srinivasan’s Candida is both nurturing and pragmatic, in a portrayal that increasingly reveals her self-possessed wisdom and reasoning. Rounding out the company are Peter Romano as Lexy, who idolizes Morell to the point of unwittingly imitating him, and Amber Reauchean Williams as the comically prim and proper Prossy, who explodes when her typewriter is touched and, in one of the show’s most uproarious scenes, uncharacteristically loosens up after drinking champagne at an event featuring the Pastor.
Period-style costumes by Dustin Cross, hair design by The Wig Associates, and props by Sean Sanford define the characters, their professions, and demeanors, and the rich set by Lindsay Genevieve Fuori, filled floor to ceiling with art, books, collectibles, and toys, is augmented by Jamie Roderick’s beautiful lighting and sound by Michael Costagliola, including popular jazz and gospel music of the age played on an old-time radio and gramophone.
GTG’s reimagining of Shaw’s Candida – the first NYC production of the work in more than 20 years – is engaging and dynamic. It will make you laugh and make you think about the weighty themes and the divisiveness of the characters that still resonate in our own time.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.
Candida plays through Saturday, November 19, 2022, at the Gingold Theatrical Group, performing at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $69-104, plus service fee), go online. Masks are required in the building, except when actively eating or drinking, and COVID-19 vaccinations are recommended.