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Engaging Shaw

I would propose that marriage become a series of renewable one year contracts —  Shaw

Don't mock me —  Charlotte

Tell someone he will be condemned to something forever, and he will exert all of his will to escape. Tell that same someone he will only be permitted a certain pleasure for a short period, and he will exert all of his will to prolong it. The fear of losing the loved one on the anniversary of the contract would keep everyone together and on their best behavior. —  Shaw

Ames Adamson as Shaw and Katrina Ferguson in Engaging Shaw
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
George Bernard Shaw had sex. Believe it. The genius playwright presumably, and by his own admission however, never consummated his marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend. That aspect of his relationship with the wealthy independent woman, who also served as his long-time secretary, nursemaid, friend, and benefactor, seems to have not dissuaded playwright John Morogiello of the possibility. If no physical intimacy between them can be historically and biographically validated, neither can it be dismissed as inconceivable.

review continues below

Morogiello also has every right to consider them as physically attractive, intellectually compatible, and emotionally susceptible to each others idiosyncratic charms. Hooey, or not, Ames Adamson is a decidedly dashing Shaw, his red hair and trimmed beard a startling match in color to the wool suit he wears in Act I.

Here is a Shaw in 1896 virtually aglow with self-assuredness, vanity and ego. This, despite that fact that he has yet to have one of his plays produced. As Engaging Shaw would have us believe, GBS proves to be no match for the equally inscrutable, conspicuously determined, and very attractive Charlotte, as played with winning aplomb by Katrina Ferguson.

The play (it eceived its world premiere in 2006 at the Oldcastle Theater Company in Bennington, Vermont) begins at the cottage home (modestly evoked by designer Charles Corcoran) of their mutual friends and activist socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. You may be startled by a brief opening oration (presumably to a large public gathering) as Sidney pontificates on socialist reforms. Surprisingly Sidney (as played with a comical countenance and an abrasively styled rhetoric by the small framed and bearded Marc Geller) might easily be mistaken at first for the Shaw we are more accustomed to seeing. Beatrice (Helen Mutch) quickly puts an end to his speechifying ("Oh, Sidney, stop - - - I didn't understand a single word you were saying.") Although Beatrice and Sidney are aligned in their social-political beliefs, they seemed an odd pair physically. She is a rather pretty woman and knows how to hold the opinionated Sidney in check.

The Webb's fledgling, financially strapped Fabian Society (to evolve as the London School of Economics) needs an infusion of money. With that purpose in mind, the wealthy unwed Charlotte has been invited to their home where Shaw is currently a guest. But this occasion also affords Beatrice a chance to play matchmaker for Charlotte who claims to want "no sex just exclusivity" from the brilliantly evasive Shaw. Charlotte makes a deal with Beatrice, "Tell me I have an ally and you shall have a school."

Morogiello postulates with a resourceful (using quotations from the works and letters of GBS) and an amusing imagining of the unlikely long-term relationship between reticent and suspicious George Bernard and Charlotte, who uses her secretarial skills to infiltrate his world. Shaw's wit, his devious and devilish devotion to his own persona is exactingly and poignantly challenged by a smart woman of undeniable forbearance. Charlotte ultimately proved to be a formidable companion, a forgiving and willing caregiver for the frequently ailing and disagreeable Shaw who, nevertheless, concedes "You're my best friend."

Director Langdon Brown affects a brisk pace through the alternately turbulent and tender scenes over two acts, the constant chatter and the clash of four opposing temperaments. The four actors are splendid and have a firm grip on the essentially talky text, which blends Morogiello's cheeky inventions with what is Shavian in origin. Although the play consists of the mostly romantic dueling between Shaw and Charlotte, it also posits Beatrice's discreet infatuation with Shaw.

Bernard Shaw was indeed known to have had flirtations with celebrated women such as Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Yet, Morogiello cleverly sees the one with Charlotte as the most provocative and compelling. "The green-eyed one," as Shaw called her, gives a persuasive speech near the end of the play in which she makes the most convincing case for marrying you are ever likely to hear. It even out-wits and out-smarts the resistant Shaw, that superman of letters.

There is never a doubt that Shaw's often insensitive and occasionally cruel words regarding marriage and his perversely observant opinions on other topics emanate from the genius writer of Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, among many more masterworks of dramatic literature. The pleasure of the play is how it manages to make us see an aspect of Shaw through the sheer magnetic/charismatic force of Adamson's performance. How lucky we are that Shaw's life, celibate or not under the covers, never compromised all the life he created between the acts.

Engaging Shaw
  By John Morogiello
  Directed by Langdon Brown

Cast: Ames Adamson, Katrina Ferguson, Marc Geller, Helen Mutch
  Scenic Design: Charles Corcoran
  Lighting Design: Jill Nable
  Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
  Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
  New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ
  (732) 229 – 3166
  Dates: 03/13/08 – 04/13/08
  Performances: Thurs & Fri at 8 PM; Sat at 3 PM & Sun at 2 PM
  Tickets ($35)
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/16/08
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