nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
April 16, 2010
Think of it as "Shaw in Love"...or as near to love as notorious curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw could get. John Morogiello's Engaging Shaw portrays the unlikely real life romance between Shaw and Charlotte Payne-Townshend, socialite-turned-secretary -turned-socialist. Charlotte matches Shaw, or "Bernie," as she calls him, epigram for epigram, melting Shaw's stony heart in the process.
Morogiello's charming, if occasionally sluggish, play envisions Charlotte and Shaw's courtship as a Shavian battle of wits, replete with as much sociological debate as romance. He artfully weaves excerpts from Shaw's writing into the dialogue, and the quarrels between Shaw and Charlotte evoke Shaw's own Man and Superman. The result is a play that, in its best moments, resembles a lost Shavian masterpiece.
The play begins in a cottage in the English countryside, where Beatrice and Sidney Webb, prominent members of the Fabian Society, a left-wing think tank, are summering with their guest, George Bernard Shaw. Beatrice secretly harbors romantic longings for Shaw, which he carefully keeps at bay. The play is set in motion when Beatrice and Sidney invite wealthy socialite Charlotte Payne-Townshend down from London for the day. They hope Charlotte can be persuaded to fund their new project, the London School of Economics, and marry a prominent Fabian (but not Shaw). Then Shaw nearly runs over Charlotte with his bicycle on the lane, and their improbable romance begins.
Jackob G. Hofmann directs the proceedings with a deft hand, although the excessive transitions of the Act 2 letter-writing sequence, in which all the characters correspond from across the globe, can get distracting. At times, the debates between characters can feel leaden, especially the confrontations between Charlotte and Beatrice, who improbably transforms from Charlotte's rival to helpmate in the space of a few seconds.
The ensemble ably bring their roles to life. Warren Kelley makes a self-important but secretly needy Shaw, and Claire Warden is a beguiling Charlotte, who stumbles upon her social conscience while trying to forget her fraught Shavian courtship. Jamee Vance is a memorably meddlesome Beatrice, while Marc Geller provides welcome comic relief as Sidney.
The design is richly detailed and creates a sumptuous sense of period. The Ken Larson Company transforms the tiny Abingdon black box into a startlingly splendid Victorian study, while Deborah J. Caney's rich costumes remake the actors into doppelgangers for their historic characters. Matthew McCarthy's lighting helps evoke the rapid change of location in Act 2, and Larry Spivack's music, inspired by Mozart, sets the right tone.
In all Engaging Shaw is very engaging indeed.