Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
August 19, 2011
Another quarreling couple is airing its dirty laundry at the Old Globe. Outdoors on the Festival stage, Beatrice and Benedick are going at it in “Much Ado about Nothing .” And on the circular stage of the White Theatre next door, Bernie and Charlotte are defiantly espousing their anti-spouse opinions in “Engaging Shaw.”
All four marriage-disdaining iconoclasts will wind up walking down the aisle by play’s end. The only difference, besides the 400-year gulf between playwrights, is that Bea and Ben are fictional; Bernie and Charlotte are based in cold, hard fact.
The Bernie is George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Prize-winning playwright, novelist, essayist, music critic, prolific letter-writer, vehement socialist, vegetarian and teetotaler, who was also a self-involved, self-promoting bon vivant and self-proclaimed ‘philanderer.’ He wanted no part of marriage, and decried the institution in his writings. But like many staunchly confirmed bachelors, at long last he met his match.
Charlotte Payne-Townsend was of Irish descent, like Shaw, but she was independently wealthy, an unorthodox heiress who scorned rules and expectations. They were in their early 40s when they met in 1896, both being members of the Fabian Society, an organization dedicated to spreading socialism. He was a charter member of the Fabians, and with his friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a co-founder of the London School of Economics. It was Mrs. Webb, another intelligent woman in an unconventional marriage, who introduced the two. She and her husband provide foils for the couple in the West coast premiere of John Morogiello’s 2008 comedy, “Engaging Shaw.”
The play follows the early history of the idiosyncratic courtship, while mimicking Shaw’s own style. It’s stuffed with political rhetoric which is overshadowed by the witty, often intellectually dizzying repartee, much of which is taken from Shaw’s works and letters. It just gives the tiniest taste of the multi-faceted Shaw, and even less of the other three characters. All are quite broadly sketched. But it’s high-spirited and droll, in that veddy English way — even though it’s written by an American.
The set, by Wilson Chin, cleverly converts from the Webbs ’ Stratford cottage to Shaw’s cluttered studio, where he suffers hypochondriacally in Charlotte’s globetrotting absence. She tries every trick in the book to win him over, and win him she does, though reportedly, the 45-year marriage was never consummated.
Director Henry Wishcamper keeps the tone light and the action briskly paced. His cast is accomplished and convincing. The Webbs aren’t half as interesting as the Shaws , but the scheming relationship between the two women is delectable, amusingly paralleled by the men’s awkwardness in non-political conversation.
Though the play is smart, high-spirited and well-written, it feels like a trifle. Despite the protagonists’ nonconformity and eccentricity, their story is presented as a somewhat predictable romcom , but it is engaging.
“Engaging Shaw” runs through September 4 at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.
©2011 PAT LAUNER