You Never Can Tell

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 16, 2016

You Never Can Tell

George Bernard Shaw's towering reputation notwithstanding, for many people the title "You Never Can Tell" instantly summons to mind Chuck Berry. And now that song will be stuck in your head all day, and it's more or less our fault. Sorry.

Cal Shakes drafts Shaw's ill-mannered manners play circa 1897 as its August offering. Rather than the traditional seaside English town, director Lisa Peterson places the show in a Northern California resort, complete with boardwalk and the distant specter of an amusement park.

The twisted roller coaster set (by Erik Flatmo) looks sly without covering up the natural beauty of the Bruns Amphitheater, which is always a sound creative choice. Even so, the Golden State setting is the first of a series of mishaps in this production. The boardwalk is cute but makes the action seem even more affected by seeming to suggest that we're seeing a sideshow.

And as a setting, California in 1893 just isn't the same. Presumably, Peterson and company wanted to shake up the play's sometimes stuffy atmosphere. Instead, the stuffiness remains, and now seems confusingly out of place to boot.

At play's open, Mrs. Clandon, a world famous feminist author who only rarely gets a first name (played by Elizabeth Carter, who previously played every single woman in Aurora Theatre's "Wittenberg"), pops up in California with her three eccentric kids in tow.

Through an apparent dramatic coincidence, the kids here for the first time meet their estranged father, the snarling and embittered Fergus Crampton (Michael Torres, coming off like a cross between Peter Lorre and a hyena). Meanwhile, vagabond dentist/playboy Valentine falls for stiff-necked Clandon daughter Gloria.

But the pair butt heads immediately, since Gloria is an emancipated woman and Valentine is... well, it's hard to say, since he comes off like at least four different people depending on the scene.

And that's what there is of the plot, mostly just a set of bones on which to hang observations and witticisms about class, society, men and women and human pride. Which would be okay, if the play were particularly engaging or even seemed to care much about itself.

The love story is a dud. Matthew Baldiga (previously in "Ah! Wilderness" at ACT) and Sabina Zuniga Varela throw the word chemistry at each other, but these people don't seem like they ought to occupy the same state of the union together, much less a state of matrimony.

When they grow hysterical, it's a little hard to tell if it's supposed to be funny. (Either way, it isn't.) And when Gloria dismisses her periodontist paramour as a "sentimental idiot," she's clearly correct, and the courting story should probably end there.

Many of the roles seem to be very broad, stock types. They even don traditional Italian comedy masks and costumes for the party scene.

Sometimes this works, as for Khalia Davis and Lance Gardner, a pair of brother-sister clowns with torpedo-swift comic patter. There's something almost demonic about their ADHD-grade cheerfulness, but the way they toss off the lines is pure fireworks.

But then you've got someone like Liam Vincent (from last year's "The Mystery of Irma Vep"), who pops up at the end as a judge who seems to have borrowed his bench manner from a Vegas hypnotist.

At least Danny Scheie, patron saint of Bay Area comedy, salvages much of "You Never Can Tell" on his own as a strategically humble but knowing waiter. Granted, his Irish accent is so out there it probably verges on being a controlled substance. But Scheie's natural, borderline sadistic jovialness can turn almost any line into a winner, seemingly through force of personality alone.

"You Never Can Tell" is a mishmash of different eras, different ideas and, seemingly, different comedies. At times it's amusing, but it's never particularly endearing or insightful or even that lucid.

"You Never Can Tell" runs through September 4 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. For tickets and information, call 510-548-9666 or visit