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A CurtainUp Review
Widowers' Houses

The real secret of the cynicism and inhumanity of which shallower critics accuse me is the unexpectedness with which my characters behave like human beings instead of conforming to the romantic logic of the stage.
--- Bernard Shaw
 Dominic Cuskern, Rachel Botchan, Sean McNall
L-R: Dominic Cuskern, Rachel Botchan, Sean McNall
(Photo: Matthew Shane)
George Bernard Shaw referred to his first three plays -- Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession -- as " unpleasant." The adjective is best explained in his own words:
"Here we are confronted not only with the comedy and tragedy of individual character and destiny, but with the social horrors which arise from the fact that the average homebred Englishman, however honorable and good-natred he may be in his private capacity, is, as a citizen, a wretched creature who whilst clamoring for a gratuitous millenium, will shut his eyes to the most villainous abuses if the remedy threatens to add another penny in the pound rates and taxes which he has to be half cheated, half coerced into paying."
Unpleasant and polemical as a play whose main characters owe their comfortable life styles to real estate practices that offer poor people the choice between slum housing and homelessness may sound, you'll find the Pearl's revival of Widowers' Houses a decidedly pleasant experience. Begun as a a collaboration with William Archer, this fledging play not only fulfills Shaw's aim to expose the hidden ties between pleasant people who imagine that such sordid matters as slum-lordism do not touch them, but also to entertain.

Widowers' Houses has not enjoyed as many productions as some of Shaw's other plays. Its only appearance on Broadway dates back to a very brief run in 1907. The Pearl Theater thus deserves a special round of applause for giving New York audiences a chance to appreciate how Shaw, even in this fledgling effort managed to pursue a moral agenda but without preaching. Let's also give a hand to J. R. Sullivan for his straightforward direction. Instead of trying for any new-fangled updating, he relies on the company's resident actors to give the characters vivid life and leaves it to the viewers to draw their own conclusions about the parallels between the rot at the bottom of the polite and polished edifice of upper crust London circa 1890 and today's New York .

The plot is basically a boy meets girl romance that's hobbled by complications stemming from economic and moral differences. He -- Dr. Harry Trent (Sean McNall) -- is well-connected but being the middle son must pursue a career as a doctor. She -- Blanche Sartorius (Rachel Botchan) -- is the spoiled daughter of a rich realtor (Dan Dailey) whose fortune has been made by morally questionable means (from milking the poor living in his sub-standard houses). The idealistic young doctor is happy enough at the prospect of having his future father-in-law help him keep his beloved in the style to which she's become accustomed. However, when he discovers the source of that money he tells his fiancée that they must live on his modest income (which still unbeknownst to him comes from the interest on the mortgage his family holds on Sartorius's properties). Since he does not explain his actions in order to prevent her from being disillusioned with her father, she angrily misinterprets his change of plans and things seem headed for an unhappy ending. But the characters in this play -- including the young lovers -- are more pragmatic than heroic and so Shaw cleverly manages a happy ending but with a sharply ironic twist.

Though Shaw's gifts for balancing exposé with entertainment were to come to full bloom in his later plays (the much revived Mrs. Warren's Profession revolved around the same theme of hypocrisy, this time the baser trade being flesh peddling), Widowers' Houses is remarkably well structured into three forward moving acts. The first act which allows the romance to blossom and the background differences to be established is staged during a traditional Victorian holiday abroad. The middle act starts like a comedy of manners (think Oscar Wilde), but turns more serious when the adage about money being the root of all evil comes into play and brings the wedding plans to a halt. The last act is Shaw at his most clever. It offers neither a plan for dealing with the social injustices brought to light nor does it have any of the characters change their hypocritical mindsets.

Besides giving us a rare chance to see Widowers' Houses, this revival also provides some plum roles for handful of Pearl resident actors to demonstrate their affinity for Shavian wit. Sean McNall strikes the right balance between young Dr. Trench's inherent decency and his shoulder shrugging accession to the ways of the world. Rachel Botcham seems to enjoy being a more fierce and unheroic romantic lead than she has in past Pearl productions. Dan Daily lends his usual commanding voice and presence to the tough slumlord who has a heart of gold when it comes to his only child. Dominic Cuskern is deliciously droll as Trench's always-the-gentleman friend and mentor. Edward Seamon portrays the rent collector who metamorphoses into a crafty entrepreneur with Dickensian flair. If Robin Leslie Brown overdoes the shticky humor of the much abused parlormaid, she obviously knows what she's about. The Pearl regulars at the matinee I attended ate up every over-the-top gesture and facial grimace.

Takeshi Kata's smartly switches from a very basic German terrace restaurant (with a painting used as a view) in the first act to the beautifully detailed parlor of the Sartorius home in which the second and third acts play out. The atmospheric production is further enhanced by Liz Covey's costumes.

Given the greed, snobbery and hypocrisy on display on the Pearl's stage, I would be pleased to report that the play is dated, but as a woman sitting in back of me told her companion as she walked out of the theater "the more things change, the more they remain the same." Fortunately, as this production once again proves, the more we see Shaw, the more he remains one of the theater's more sparkling wits.

Widowers’ Houses

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Cast: Ryland Blackinton, Rachel Botchan, Robin Leslie Brown, Dominic Cuskern, Dan Daily, Edward Griffin, Sean McNall, Edward Seamon Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Liz Covey
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Running time: Approx 2 hours with intermission.
Pearl, 80 St. Marks Place, 212-598-9802
From From 4/02/05 to 5/01/05; opening 4/10/05
Tue at 7pm; Thu - Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 2pm
Tickets: $40 - $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/10/05 matinee performance
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