'Candida' was one of Shaw's earliest plays, one of his first commercial "hits," and, perhaps because it only has six characters, one of the more frequently revived.
In some ways, all this is understandable since it is essentially a "boulevard comedy," a play whose audience appeal is based to a great extent on sexual titillation. To do it well, however, requires some understanding of the Victorian world it describes. The Roundabout's production, directed by Gloria Muzio, shows very little.
To begin with, the Victorians were many things, but one thing they were resolutely not was "touchy-feely." Physical contact was circumscribed. So were emotional outbursts. The fact that so much was being repressed contributed to the air of sexual tension on which "Candida" is built.
None of this is apparent on the stage of the Roundabout, which has so much clutching and grabbing you might imagine all the characters were members of some trendy contemporary therapy group.
There is also a lot of acrobatic stage business, doubtless intended to offset the wordiness of the play. But the low comedy of having someone dive onto a chair or be swept away by a library ladder undermines the dignity of the characters. If, as is the case here, they show no ability to restrain their emotional outbursts, it doesn't make sense that they are so concerned about reining in other impulses.
Candida is the wife of a tremendously popular preacher (in Victorian London, the ability to give good sermons made you a celebrity). She has a youthful admirer, Marchbanks, a poet who thinks she should forsake her husband for him. Shaw's joke is that Candida, who, in some conventional play, would be a delicate creature at the mercy of her two battling knights, is, in his play, stronger and wiser than either of them.
The title role is understandably appealing to actresses because Shaw gives Candida all the wittiest material. To make the role work, however, the actress must convince us, from her very first entrance, that she is a spellbinder, a woman whose allure goes beyond the mere physical. Mary Steenburgen, alas, comes across mainly as coy and schoolmarmish.
In part, this is a result of her voice, which is high and pinched. In part it has to do with the way she moves, which is prissy rather than assuredly feminine.
At the end of the play, Candida treats the two men in her life, blustering for her hand, in a maternal way that mocks their aroused virility. But if she condescends to them all the way through, as Steenburgen does, it weakens the force of her final stance.
In the case of her two men, this condescension is understandable. As the Rev. Morell, her husband, who is supposed to exude charisma, Robert Foxworth is charmless, gruff and edgy, barely believable as the toast of London. Robert Sean Leonard has a kind of lovable puppy quality as Marchbanks, but as a result he never seems a credible threat to Morell.
Ann Dowd is funny as Morell's tough secretary. Simon Brooking is so capable in the small role of Morell's assistant one imagines he would be a strong Marchbanks. William Duff-Griffin is tiresomely abrasive as Candida's father.
David Jenkins has designed a splendid Victorian library and Jess Goldstein's costumes are elegantly appropriate, confirming my general conviction that these days designers invariably understand period better than actors and directors.
They say you can't have a "Hamlet" without a Prince - yet in a way you can. Shakespeare can suffer all manner of casting malfunctions without actually dying of intellectual malnutrition. But a "Candida" without a Candida? I think not.
That in a nutshell is what is wrong with the Roundabout Theater's new production of Shaw's 1895 comedy, which opened at the Criterion Center Stage Right last night.
Mary Steenburgen's simpering performance as Shaw's seductive enchantress heroine just doesn't start to cut the mustard, and any amount of really excellent work from the rest of the cast cannot compensate.
The play has a hole in its sentimental heart like a dunkin' donut. Mind you, the play itself - admittedly Shaw's most frequently produced and thus presumably most popular - has a few holes of its own.
It is difficult to stage what is essentially a sex comedy that possesses no sense of sexuality. It is, seemingly, a clever inversion of Ibsen's "A Doll House," with a toy-husband as its protagonist rather than a toy-wife.
Candida is a modern (1895 vintage) woman with a soul of her own. Married to a Bible-thumping windbag, the athletic socialist minister the Rev. James Morell (Robert Foxworth), she obligingly plays with the affections and appetites of a supposedly brilliant 18-year-old poet with a private income, the elegant and ardent Eugene Marchbanks (Robert Sean Leonard).
Candida tantalizes both the poet (whom Shaw makes more convincingly lovesick than genuinely poetic - no Shelley, De Quincey or Yeats he, although those are claimed as the Shavian models!) and the audience.
Eventually she settles not for romance or even sensuality but for the dear old Rev. Jim, on the grounds that for all his bluster he is a helpless child at heart in need of mothering.
In the right hands "Candida" can be very entertaining - it is a great role for an actress with enough convincingly commanding charm, for a tigress who purrs like a Siamese pussy-cat but can scratch like an ambitious Cockney alley-cat.
It is not Steenburgen's fault that she is miscast in this, her Broadway debut. A quite well-known movie actress, here she seems flounderingly out of her depth, dramatically and emotionally. She is about as Shavian as Neil Simon in a Westchester mood.
Gloria Muzio must share some of the blame - as must the Roundabout management - and her staging is oddly and farcically physical for Shaw. People seem constantly to be slipping, colliding and generally banging around a stage most handsomely set by David Jenkins (I always love sets I feel I could live in), with aptly appropriate costumes by Jess Goldstein.
I'm not sure that I have ever seen a better Morell than Foxworth - who builds a wonderfully shallow yet perfectly complex portrait of the youngish socialist priest which seemed absolutely what Shaw must have envisaged, while similarly Leonard brings a live foppishness and dead poetry to Marchbanks that seems appropriately very Lord Alfred Douglas in a wild and purple moment.
And in the supporting cast Ann Dowd makes the prissy Miss Prossy (Morell's slavishly adoring secretary) quite perfect in action, accent and attitude - it made one long to see her as Eliza in "Pygmalion."
Despite the intimations of innocence in her name, the title character in "Candida" is wise to the ways of men. She knows exactly how far she wants to carry a challenge or a seduction. Both her husband, the Rev. James Morell, and Eugene Marchbanks, adore her. The play does not have the thematic texture of works like "Heartbreak House" or "Misalliance." Rather, it is a brief but loquacious study of a romantic imbalance between the loved and the loving. It is also, of course, a case history of a Shavian-style feminist.
Although her time on stage is limited, Candida is always the subject of the conversation. In her absence, Morell and Marchbanks talk about her and argue about her. The play dawdles until she appears, a woman introduced in Shaw's stage directions as someone "who has found that she can always manage people by engaging their affection." In her home, Candida is the quietly efficient managing director.
Mary Steenburgen, who plays Candida in Gloria Muzio's revival for the Roundabout Theater Company, has demonstrated her charm and humor in movies like "Melvin and Howard" and "Time After Time." On screen, her secret is in her naturalness; she never seems affected, but brings to her acting a feeling of real life slightly out of kilter. But the qualities that make her so appealing in films do not necessarily lend themselves to playing Candida.
In her Broadway debut, the actress is genial and winsome. What she misses is the character's self-centeredness and, most of all, her cunning, her ability to dazzle the men in her life (and the people in the audience). There should be something grand and clever about Candida, which is why the role has attracted major actresses from Katharine Cornell to Joanne Woodward. In this company, Ms. Steenburgen is an overly modest contender.
Although the play is considered one of Shaw's most indestructible comedies, it needs actors who can plumb the dialogue for Shavian wit and breathe fresh life into Victorian figurines. Some compensation is offered by the actors playing Candida's consorts. Robert Foxworth is stalwart as her pompous husband, sermonizing while he speaks and blustering with the confidence of a man who is accustomed to a captive audience. But the actor is not able to keep the character from becoming tiresome.
Robert Sean Leonard earns most of the evening's laughs as Marchbanks, the 18-year-old poet who is Candida's lovelorn admirer (a role played by Marlon Brando in 1946). Mr. Leonard throws himself into his role, and is perhaps too propulsive. He is on the verge of turning Marchbanks into a clown. Repeatedly, he crashes into furniture on David Jenkins's crowded set. He leaps onto a couch as if it were a raft, and the couch begins to slide. And he thuds to his knees at the feet of his feminine ideal. At least Mr. Leonard adds a certain verve to an otherwise bland production.
The supporting actors take a one-dimensional approach to their roles and omit the subtleties. Ann Dowd's Prossy is certainly officious, but there is too little indication of her devotion to her employer, Morell. As Candida's boorish Cockney father, William Duff-Griffin could be auditioning for the role of Alfred P. Doolittle (a far richer character).
The play is in three short acts and if played without its two intermissions would last about 90 minutes. Any staging should lead briskly to that moment when the heroine carefully weighs her romantic options and makes her speech about the survival of the weak in marriage. Calculatingly, Shaw reverses Ibsenism and turns the husband into the doll in this house. At the Roundabout, even that climactic scene seems mild.
There have doubtless been many memorable Candidas - the role has been a favorite of actresses since the 1895 premiere of Shaw's comedy - but I've never encountered one in the four major productions I've seen; Mary Steenburgen, an appealing screen actress in her Broadway debut at the Roundabout, makes the tally 0-for-5.
Candida needs some fire, some coals smoldering below the surface, if she's to come off as more than the goody-goody her cleric husband (Robert Foxworth) makes her out to be or the goddess her suitor (Robert Sean Leonard) worships. Lacking that heat, Candida is just as annoying as the two men fighting over her. Three annoying people is three too many to spend an evening in the theater with.
Gloria Muzio's production has all the attributes of a mainstage offering at a prosperous resident theater: an elegant London drawing room setting by David Jenkins, opulent costumes by Jess Goldstein and lovely, sometimes artsy lighting - especially in the last act - by Peter Kaczorowski. Cast is drawn essentially from the same ranks, and a certain level of competence abounds.
But that's as good as it gets, and more frequently the evening lacks not only inspiration but even a basic level of confidence in the undertaking. It is fussily staged, excessively so in William Duff-Griffin's frog-throated blustering as Candida's father and Ann Dowd's prissy abashment as her husband's secretary.
As to the principals, Foxworth is stolid, Leonard charmless and Steenburgen plays the entire evening as a merry entertainment, which is fine in the early acts but forces the play to collapse in on itself at the end. For the record, the title role was originated by Janet Achurch; Dorothy Donnelly played its New York premiere in 1903, and it has been essayed by Peggy Wood, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Jane Cowl, Clare Booth Luce, Olivia de Havilland, Celeste Holm and Joanne Woodward, among others; the performance I would love to have seen is Katharine Cornell's, opposite Marlon Brando's Marchbanks, in 1946.