SHAW AND STALLER – PEFECT TOGETHER
It was a good week for George Bernard Shaw.
TACT – meaning The Actors Company Theatre – and The Gingold Theatrical Group – which is now in its eleventh year of “Project Shaw,” which produces staged readings of Shaw’s comedies and dramas – have teamed to give us the first of his 65 plays: THE WIDOWER’S HOUSES.
Here’s hoping they’ll get around to the 64 others, for David Staller’s production is a superb winner.
Well, it should be, for there’s no one else in town – perhaps the country, perhaps the world – who’s a better expert on GBS than Staller. Because he’s the only person to produce and direct each and every one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays at least once. he’s even been approached by the Guinness Book of World Records.
“I have to admit,” Staller says modestly, “that all those ‘producing and directing credits’ I have are all for staged readings that I put together with a day’s rehearsal. The first production of Shaw that I actually staged was CANDIDA at the Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2011.”
And, I might add, that production was terrific. As the play was approaching its climax, I could feel suspense in the air that usually only happens when one is witnessing a thriller. That’s quite an achievement for a playwright whose work is usually described as “intellectual,” “prescient” and “pedagogical.”
Yet the way that Staller staged the last scene of CANDIDA so quieted the audience that I was almost ready to drag out the cliché that includes the words “hear,” “pin” and “drop.” Would Candida, the lovely patrician wife of The Reverend James Morell, indeed leave him for the much younger and better-looking Eugene Marchbanks? Staller made it a real possibility – and remember, CANDIDA took place in 1895 when “cougar” only meant a member of the cat family.
Now at TACT, at the Clurman in the bowels of Theatre Row, Staller has tackled a far more obscure Shaw title: THE WIDOWER’S HOUSES, which hasn’t been seen on Broadway since its 16-performance run in 1907 (although, to be fair, The Pearl Theatre Company tried it 11 years ago).
Smart of Staller to start it off as if it’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, with Dr. Harry Trench (the delicious Jeremy Beck) talking about the possibility of marriage and bantering with William De Burgh Cokane (the wonderfully mannered Jonathan Hadley) as if they’re Algernon and Jack. We’re equally inclined for a night of amusement when Sartorius (the unctuous Terry Layman) comes in and says that when he’s in a foreign country, “the sound of English makes me feel at home – and I dislike feeling at home when I’m abroad.”
Sartorius has with him his daughter Blanche, who, thanks in part to actress Talene Monahon, seems as lovely and airy as Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolen. Then we meet Lickcheese and relax even more, for here’s the type of name that could be found in a Restoration comedy.
Ah, but this is no “trivial comedy for serious people,” as Wilde called his masterpiece. Sartorius turns out to be a slumlord who fires Lickcheese for making a home improvement in one of his buildings. And aren’t we horrified when we see the way that Blanche treats her maid? But that’s a softball compared to her later behavior to a certain man; she’s almost as horrific and humiliating as Queen Margaret is to York in HENRY VI, PART THREE.
I do hope I’m not offending Shaw by making a comparison with Shakespeare, with whom he reportedly had a few issues; Staller however assures me that that alleged conflict has been much too aggrandized. Maybe he’s right, for in this play Shaw homages The Bard’s “Many a true word hath been spoken in jest” from KING LEAR by stating “There is many a true word spoken in jest.”
If you think Shaw, to use an Elia Kazan phrase, “stinks of the library,” THE WIDOWER’S HOUSES resonates with some talk about conservatives and socialists, who, needless to say, are very much on our political scene. An uncaring slumlord, a blackmailer and a castrating wife-to-be could all be in any contemporary play. If we ever suspected that TACT got involved with this project because the word “tact” shows up quite a bit in the play, Staller and Shaw dispel the notion; artistic and executive director Scott Alan Evans knows a good thing when he sees it, and here he got two great things in Shaw and Staller.
Onto another Shaw work, at least in a manner of speaking, that came to mind this week. Sixty years ago on March 15, 1956, MY FAIR LADY opened and continued to run for 2,717 performances, a long-run record it was able to hold for more than nine years.
Bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe couldn’t have done it without Shaw, of course, for GBS started writing PYGMALION, MY FAIR LADY’s source material, almost 44 years earlier to the day: March 7, 1912. When it finally had its London premiere on April 11, 1914 (after productions in Germany and New York), there was quite the scandal because of the filthy, utterly obscene and terribly profane word that Shaw actually had a woman say.
“Bloody,” snarled by Eliza Doolittle before she became a fair lady.
Have you recovered or should I alert someone to administer smelling salts to you?
Of course the question is whether or not Shaw would have approved of MY FAIR LADY. We’ve heard for decades that he wasn’t crazy about musicals – especially THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER, the 1908 operetta of his 1894 hit ARMS AND THE MAN.
When approached by Oscar Strauss, he obviously wasn’t wildly enamored of the idea; he insisted that none of his dialogue be used, and as a result, felt he deserved no compensation. When Strauss’ version became a smash hit (seven Broadway productions between 1910 and 1947) Shaw was furious with himself for not insisting on a piece of the action. Could this be one reason why he called the show “a putrid opera bouffe”?
(Ah, yes; Shaw was a drama critic before he took up playwriting, wasn’t he?)
Adding insult AND injury to Shaw’s injury was that productions of ARMS AND THE MAN dropped off, too. Although there had been two Broadway revivals in the 11 years before THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER made it to Broadway, after the operetta’s debut Shaw saw only three more ARMS AND THE MAN on Broadway in the next 40 years.
Staller apparently sympathized, for when he began Project Shaw in January, 2006, ARMS AND THE MAN was his opening salvo.
Actually, Shaw may not have even been aware of that third Broadway revival, because it opened a mere two weeks before he died in 1950 at the overripe old age of 94. (Shaw made many vegetarians out of carnivores who assumed that his eliminating meat from his diet was an important component in his becoming a nonagenarian.)
Would Shaw have been happier had he lived to be 100? For when he would have been 99 and 3/4ths, he would have witnessed what
Lerner did with the end of his PYGMALION. After the play was produced and some theatergoers assumed that Eliza had married Henry Higgins, Shaw took pains to write a 5,043-word essay that insisted that Eliza wound up with Freddy Eynsford Hill. Lerner countered that by writing a note at the start of his published MY FAIR LADY script in which he stated “Shaw and heaven forgive me, I am not certain he is right.”
I love the way Staller handles this work and this issue in his program notes for THE WIDOWER’S HOUSES: “Think of PYGMALION, in which, unlike its musical version, we’ve no idea if Eliza and Higgins will ever see each other again.” He doesn’t even deign to use the musical’s name -- which may well have pleased Shaw.
However, TACT and Gingold’s THE WIDOWER’S HOUSES does make a nod to musical theater in one certain way. Notice the typeface used in the title; it’s the same one employed for WICKED. That the two shows start with the same two letters helps the analogy along. And if by some chance this typeface subtly inspires people to purchase tickets to THE WIDOWER’S HOUSES, then TACT, Gingold, Shaw, Staller and I won’t mind at all.
— Peter Filichia