KPBS AIRDATE: July 8, 1992
She was an actor and he was a playwright. She was known for her devastating English wit and marked eccentricities, a woman who never parted from her Pekingese. He was an Irish vegetarian, a socialist, polemicist, music and drama critic, antivivisectionist, promoter of spelling reform — and inveterate iconoclast. Her most famous role was in one of his most famous plays: “Pygmalion.” And she created young Eliza Doolittle when she was close to fifty.
Their ever-so-clever correspondence spanned some forty years, from 1899 to 1939. George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell were not your ordinary letter-writers. But great letters doth not necessarily great theater make.
This duologue, “Dear Liar,” was written by American actor Jerome Kilty, who performed it himself in London in 1960. Katharine Cornell and Brian Aherne did the job in New York that same year.
It’s a talky play, to be sure, with little action. But it’s a gratifying little glimpse behind the brilliance that was Shaw. A show of his intelligence, his passion, his arrogance — and his incomparable wit. These are two characters — with a capital K. They aren’t easy to play.
But Octad-One Productions happens to possess two marvelous theater veterans: Martin Gerrish and Katherine Faulconer. Gerrish is founder and artistic director of the company; Faulconer is on the Octad board. They capture these characters, and make them sing. And director William S. Farnum makes them dance. Don’t worry; it’s not a shimmying Shaw. The comment was merely metaphorical.
Gerrish and Faulconer bring both dignity and humor to their characters. With Shaw, you expect a good laugh. And Campbell could meet him head-on — brazenly. The repartee whizzes by, although the evening is over two hours long, a bit much without much action. But there are moments of sheer theater magic. Like Shaw’s moving description of his beloved mother’s death. And the time he ran to be with Mrs. Campbell by the seaside, but she was there with another man, set an early-morning swimming date and never showed, just left him standing there feeling foolish and bereft.
The only thing missing in this production is a bit of the physical magnetism touched on in the letters. The actors move constantly together and apart, but we never feel any carnal electricity between them. The verbal attraction, however, is palpable.
Elegantly dressed and backed by Gerrish’s opulent set, the characters draw us into their lives. The ups and downs of her temperamental career in Europe and America. His growing success, and his disgust with both world wars. His wife’s response to his relationship with Mrs. Campbell. The death of her son, and husband number one. Her abandonment by husband number two, George Cornwallis West, whom she used to make Shaw jealous. His writing “Pygmalion” for her, and directing her in it, with all the conflicts that entailed. Their concerns about illness and aging and still being attractive to each other.
“Your pen makes you drunk,” she tells him in one of her playfully vituperative moments. She was right, of course. And if you let yourself go while you watch this loving production of “Dear Liar,” you, too, may come away feeling slightly inebriated.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.