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A CurtainUp Review
The Devil's Disciple

Do you realize you are killing yourself?— Mrs. Anderson
The only man I have the right to kill. — Dick Dudgeon
With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
Devil's Disciple
Lorenzo Pisoni as Dick the Devil's Disciple (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Irish Rep is doing its patriotic duty with a first rate production of the only play George Bernard Shaw set in America. It is pure Victorian melodrama but it is also quite funny, prescient and topical. Even more importantly, it is Shaw's warning about how Puritanical values bring misery.

The self-described "upstart son of a downstart," Shaw has also been labeled (as he has himself once said of Oscar Wilde) "the world's most thorough playwright." To be sure, the "upstart," delighted himself by toying with every social, political, moral and ethical rebellion from here to Methuselah and back. In his most rebellious mood with The Devil's Disciple, he cleverly probed into the ceremoniously veiled presumptions about Godliness and deviltry.

Is it less than Godliness when the irreverent and incorrigible (according to the conventional community standards of Websterbridge, N.J., 1777) Dick Dudgeon, the black sheep of the family, not only takes an orphan under his wing but also takes the place of the purposefully dedicated Parson Anderson at the foot of the gallows? And what are we to make of the parson's quick decision to sell his Bibles in order to buy pistols so he, with the help of a neighboring band of patriots, can surround Burgoyne's army and effect Dick's release?

The Devil's Disciple is full of tantalizing questions and startling discoveries about people who may indeed be more or less than the labels society has affixed to them. This delectably spicy and winningly short melodrama has been appointed to a comely company of excellent actors whose delight it is to make every minute invigorating and fun. Act 1 is dominated by the charismatic Lorenzo Pisoni. He displays considerable charm as Richard, a smuggler who lives with Gypsies and is branded as "wicked, dissolute, godless." With the Act 2 arrival of the endearing John Windsor-Cunningham's formidably disposed "Gentleman Johnny," Burgoyne, the company good naturedly and with comedic aplomb thrusts itself into the philosophically endowed havoc . Cunningham drolly delivers Burgoyne's best line, when he proclaims the solemnity of the occasion, "Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like. It is the only way a man can become famous without ability," and gets the play's heartiest laugh.

But Shaw remains relevant. When Parson Anderson asks Burgoyne: "Have you realized that though you may occupy towns and win battles, you cannot conquer a nation?" it is a chilling reminder of how America has ironically assumed a role similar to the one the British once had on foreign soil. When Burgoyne takes umbrage with Dick's defiance of the taxes levied by the British on the Americans, it is Dick's response that gets its due from the audience: "It's not the money, General, but being swindled by a pig-headed lunatic like King George."

Directed in a playful manner by Tony Walton, the unsentimental wit expressed in Shaw's slight but stingingly irreverent comedy remains a remarkably buoyant and relevant exposure of the puritanical. Making a delectably conflicted spectacle of herself as the parson's given-to-fainting wife who can't get that "blasphemous," rogue Dick out of her mind, Jenny Fellner is a delight. Pisoni and Fellner give their insinuatingly intimate scenes just the right touch of don't-touch-me- but-I'm-yours-if-you-want-me.

As the Clark Kent into super "man of action" parson, Carzon Dobell fills the bill splendidly. There is plenty of humor to be found in Craig Pattison's goofy portrayal of Dick's brother, the intellectually challenged Christy Dudgeon, and in the humorless piety of the Widow Dudgeon, as portrayed with sanctimonious rigidity by Darcy Pulliam. Orphan Essie's insecurity is sweetly captured by Cristin Milioti. Robert Sedgwick is splendid as Uncle Titus Dudgeon, and as the incompetent and insipid Major Swindon.

Despite the modest scenery dictated by the space, Tony Walton has created four settings to evoke the Dudgeon dwelling, the minister's home, British headquarters and the gallows yard. Walton is also to be commended for having ten actors portray fourteen characters with concerted brio. The original New York production in 1897 boasted thirty-three featured players among the one hundred that trod the stage, including soldiers and a military band. Though this time for musical accompaniment we have to content ourselves with Dick whistling a brief refrain of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," more than one patron was heard singing that tune as they exited the theater.

Interesting to note: The familiar pre-Revolutionary song was originally sung by the British to mock the tattered and undisciplined Americans. A "doodle," was a simpleton and a "macaroni," was an American who thought it the height of fashion to put a feather in his hat. You could say that the Irish Rep has put another feather in its cap.

Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer

If this seems more melodramatic than other Shaw plays you've seen, that's because this was Shaw's way of satirizing the then popular genre. It was one of his earlier plays (1897), written after three years of reviewing what he deemed bad plays . The idea was to show that there WERE better ones available. Amused by critics who called The Devil's Disciple "original" and noted gleefully that he deliberately used many of the hackneyed devices of the current theater.

The Puritan in this first of his "Three Plays for Puritans," is of course the disagreeable Mrs. Dudgeon, a woman who bears with "intensely recalcitrant resignation" the blows the Lord has let fall on her head. Shaw made much of the contrast between the puritanical Mrs. Dudgeon and her son Dick and in his preface to the 1900 edition of the play compared Mrs. D to Mrs. Clenman in Dickens' Little Dorrit.

Though the American actor Richard Mansfield produced the play as well as starring in it, he had little liking for Shaw, either as a man or an author. He didn't change his mind even when he continued to successfully tour with the play. When somone told him that he ought to thank God each night for finding such a play he said that he did —but always with an added question: "Why O God did it have to be by Shaw?"

When DD was show in England, it proved as popular as in America. A 1950 revival at City Center starred the great Maurice Evans as Dick Dudgeon and was so well received that it moved to Broadway. The last New York production of the play was at the Circle in the Square (11/13/1988 - 2/19/1989) with Philip Bosco as General Burgoyne, Victor Garber as Richard Dudgeon and Judith Anderson as Roxanne Hart. A 1959 film version starred Kirk Douglas, as Dick, Burt Lancaster, as the Parson, Eva Le Gallienne, as Mrs. Dudgeon, and Sir Laurence Olivier, as Burgoyne.

And, since theater goers cannot live by words alone, no matter how clever, Restivo Restaurant, just down the street from the Irish Rep, on the northwest corner of 22nd Street and 7th Avenue, is a charming and delicious place for lunch or dinner. The menu is diverse and delicious. The atmosphere is warm and quiet, the service pleasant and the prices very reasonable. The desserts are irresistible, and if you go to a matinee, as I did, the brunch is a real bargain.

For more about Bernard Shaw, including links to reviews of his plays, see our Shaw Backgrounder.
The Devil's Disciple
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed and Designed by Tony Walton
Cast: Curzon Dobell, Jenny Fellner, Sean Gormley, Cristin Milioti, Craig Pattison, Lorenzo Pisoni, Darcy Pulliam, Robert Sedgwick, Richard B. Watson, John Windsor-Cunningham
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Co-Costume Designer: Rebecca Lustig
Sound Design: Zachary Williamson
Associated Set Designer: Heather Wolensky
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
The Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd St. (212) 727- 2737
Tickets ($60 and $55)
Performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees are Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 PM.
From 12/05/07; opening 12/13/07; closing 01/27/08--extended to 2/10/08
Ends: 01/27/08
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/09/07

The  Playbill Broadway YearBook
The Playbill Broadway YearBook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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