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A CurtainUp Review

Major Barbara
By Les Gutman

As the Salvation Army bell-ringers retake their positions for the holiday season, what could be more appropriate than a staging of Shaw's biting comedy examining that organization (as well as almost everything else), Major Barbara? Answer: nothing could be more relevant or much more fun. The Irish Repertory Theatre's production is smart, briskly-paced and thoroughly enjoyable.

This is famed designer Tony Walton's second foray into directing at the Irish Rep. (Last season, he made his New York directing debut with The Importance of Being Earnest.) Walton actually wears many hats here, serving not only as director but also as set and costume designer, script cobbler and even supplier of theater lobby and Playbill cover art. The script for this production (as explained by Walton's note) is an amalgam of Shaws's stage versions as well as his film version. The lobby art includes several splendid caricatures by Walton, including a bit of nostalgia from the important production of Major Barbara in 1950's New York.

The play opens quite conventionally, in the drawing room of Lady Britomart Undershaft (Charlotte Moore), estranged wife of wealthy munitions-maker Andrew Undershaft (Jack Ryland). With three children approaching adulthood, she summons her husband. He arrives to meet two very different daughters, Sarah (Schuyler Grant) and Barbara (Melissa Errico), and their equally dissimilar intendeds, Charles Lomax (Paul McGrane) and Adolphus Cusins (Boyd Gaines), as well as a son, Stephen (Scott Beehner). What ensues is a "discussion in three acts"(Shaw's description) including visits to a Salvation Army shelter (Barbara is a Major there) and her father's munitions factory.

Shaw's plays are listening plays: you have to pay attention to the words to appreciate them. Doing so has great rewards since few have ever written with more urbane wit. Shaw tricks his audiences into contemplating ponderous thoughts by making them laugh. If some audiences also have to be tricked into paying attention, I think this energetic production succeeds in accomplishing this feat. Although it is perhaps dated in style, Major Barbara is remarkably fresh in ideas. The issues on which Shaw focused in the first decade of this century (the relative virtues and interplay between wealth and charity, war and peace and the institutions of religion, government, business and family, to name a few) have lost none of their currency in its last decade.

If you can't judge a book by its cover, you also can't judge a play by its opening scene. This one starts dull, predictable and not very attractive. The two actors onstage, Charlotte Moore and Scott Beehner, are the least satisfying in an otherwise excellent cast, the sets are adequate but unimpressive and the staging is clumsy. Happily, the acting redeems itself once the remainder of the cast appears, enough so that the weaknesses fade and the strengths of Shaw's play take charge.

The bright lights in this cast are its visitors from the world of musical theater, the exuberant Melissa Errico and the equally energetic Boyd Gaines. Although not here to sing, they do get a few seconds to show off their impressive voices at the end of the first act. Both understand the paradox that is central to Shaw's theme, and their critical roles in fleshing it out. Errico finds the fine line between joyful idealism and wide-eyed innocence, and understands how her personality plays off of her Salvation Army uniform. Gaines plays her Greek scholar boyfriend a bit more effusively than he might, but he is so measured in his reading of the character's contradictions (intellectual yet impulsive, so determined he is intolerant yet so considerate he is not) that he renders any excess believable.

Nearly as good is Jack Ryland as the embodiment of wealth, Andrew Undershaft. A man who answers" millionaire" when asked his religion, this character is blessed with some of Shaw's most splendid lines. Ryland exploits the gift with intensity. Of the remainder of the cast, especially noteworthy are the performances of Rob Sedgwick as the "salvation-proof" Bill Walker, and Thomas Carson, especially as Peter Shirley, an honest but poor old man who is perfect as Undershaft's foil.

As a director, Tony Walton is no doubt having fun, and it shows. He leaves little of Shaw's humor underutilized, and he keeps the overall production entertaining. Still, his direction shows many of the signs of the novice that he is as a director: actors pacing around on stage, cumbersome blocking (on Irish Rep's admittedly small stage) and unnecessary little flourishes.

More surprising is Walton's undistinguished and difficult set design for this production. Having proven himself a master of the high-budget production, it is apparent he (here at least) lacks the off-Broadway designer's knack for making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. His design has two other defects: it contributes to, rather than aids, the blocking problems mentioned above, and it requires an inordinate amount of time and energy for the several scene changes to be implemented. A more fluid transition could have shaved ten minutes from the two hour and forty minute running time.

Walton's costume designs are just fine, including both the well-dressed Undershaft family and the far less elegant garb of the denizens of the Salvation Army shelter. Kirk Bookman's lighting design is also quite well done, warmly lighting several of the scenes to great effect and adding a fading focused spot as a nice touch at the end of each act.

by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by Tony Walton 
Cast: Carson, Terry Donnelly, Melissa Errico, Boyd Gaines. Schuyler Grant, Paul Anthony McGranes
Set and Costume Designer: Tony Walton
Lighting Designer: Kirk Bookman
Sound Designer: Randy Freed

The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street (212) 727-2737 
11/15/98-1/04/98; opened November 24, 1997 
Seen and Reviewed 11/26/98

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