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Theatre in Review: Widowers' Houses (T.A.C.T. and Gingold Theatrical Group/Theatre Row)

Talene Monahon, Jeremy Beck. Photo: Marielle Solan

Even geniuses have to write first plays, and Widowers' Houses must be ascribed to George Bernard Shaw. This is not to say that it is terrible, or that if another writer's name was on it, it might not be very much admired. It certainly sets the tone for much of what was to come, as it focuses on a young man whose engagement to the girl he loves flounders when he expresses grave reservations about his potential father-in-law's business dealings, only to discover that he himself is deeply implicated in the social crimes that he deplores. But there's a reason Widowers' Houses has been seen exactly once on Broadway, in 1907 (in a 16-performance run), and only very rarely Off Broadway: The provocative arguments are in place, but the sparkle isn't yet there. Shaw hadn't yet sufficiently divorced himself from the conventions of the well-made play, and the author's savage ironies are placed rather uncertainly into a plot that could have been cribbed from Henrik Ibsen, a major influence at the time. Shaw learned fast -- he was only two plays away from writing Mrs. Warren's Profession -- but that doesn't change the fact that Widowers' Houses is a workmanlike piece at best.

If played straight, with a certain delicacy, Widowers' Houses can, I think, be made to work, but the current production, staged by David Staller, New York's resident Shaw expert (and the man who gave us a really ripping Major Barbara last season at the Pearl Theatre Company), works much too hard to create a bright romantic-comedy atmosphere, never really coming to grips with the acrid facts at the play's center.

Harry Trench, the second son of a distinguished family, has just obtained his medical degree and is celebrating with a trip along the Rhine. On his travels, he falls in love with the lovely Blanche Sartorius, and, wasting no time, approaches her father on the subject of marriage. Sartorius, aware of the young man's connections, expresses no objection to the match, with one reservation: Harry must obtain written confirmation from his relatives that Blanche will be welcome in their homes. Such a request should surely set off alarm bells, but Harry accepts Sartorius' vague explanation about being a self-made man.

When the confirmation is received, it appears that wedding bells are soon to ring -- but then Harry learns what Sartorius was getting at: He is London's most notorious slumlord, squeezing every last shilling out of renters who live, if that's the right word, in his "fever dens," devoid of comfort and lacking basic sanitary necessities. Trying to assuage his conscience, Harry proposes that he and Blanche live solely on his middling family income while he builds his medical practice, a proposal that lays bare Blanche's heretofore unseen violent temper. Then he learns that his money -- which, apparently, he has never thought about -- is tied up entirely in Sartorius's business. As he is forced to admit, "People who live in glass houses have no right to throw stones. But, on my honor, I never knew that my house was a glass one until you pointed it out."

It's a solid dramatic framework, and, as the program notes point out, couldn't be more relevant to today's audiences, who, for example, buy inexpensive clothing made by Asian slave labor, or who merrily fill their gas tanks without concern for global warming. But the script is an uneasy mix of romantic comedy, on which Staller puts too much emphasis, and social drama, which here becomes overwrought melodrama. On the plus side, Jeremy Beck has a solid grasp of period style as Harry, and he makes the character's moral dilemma seem real, even if he might express more revulsion upon first learning what Sartorius is up to. Terry Layman, in a role that sometimes seems a rough draft for Andrew Undershaft, the unrepentant munitions maker of Major Barbara, manages his arguments in fairly suave fashion, despite a slight tendency to rush his speeches. Best of all is John Plumpis as the piquantly named Lickcheese, Sartorius' groveling rent collector, who exposes his employer's dealings to Harry, then returns later on as a newly prosperous businessman with a new and even more corrupt real estate development. (When someone sententiously notes that money is the root of all evil, Lickcheese retorts, "Yes, sir, and we'd all like to have the tree growing in our garden.") Hanna Cheek is likable both as a multilingual German barmaid and as a cringing maid in Sartorius' house.

The production is marred, however, by two problematic performances. William De Burgh Cokane, Harry's confidante and travelling companion, is supposed to be as silly as the name suggests -- Shaw calls him "constitutionally ridiculous in uncompassionate eyes" -- but is that any reason for Jonathan Hadley to play him in such a wildly affected fashion? Given the character's mannerisms, especially his predilection for sprinkling his dialogue with French phrases, the character is already a sitting duck; surely a clever actor would play him slightly against type, letting the audience discover the character's frivolousness rather than putting it on brazen display. As Blanche, another Shaw heroine who is really a calculating machine in petticoats, Talene Monahon starts out amusingly, lending a sense of unspoken purpose to the blandest line and deftly handling the business of blatantly dropping her fan so that Harry will get down on his knees and, perhaps, propose to her. But she isn't costumed and made up to be sufficiently alluring that, when her violent temper is unleashed, she is revealed to be an utterly unpleasant harridan, her fascination permanently destroyed. We are left mystified as to why Harry might return to her: If he is going to sell his soul, shouldn't he get a bit of value for it?

There are other arguably too-sunny touches, such as the introduction of the company to jolly band music and a couple of fussily staged scene changes in which Cheek, as the maid, comically moves the furniture around. Brian Prather's set, which places a white wrought-iron framework against a drop depicting an architectural drawing of a Georgian mansion, is an interesting concept, although it could be more attractive. Barbara A. Bell's costumes include some beautifully tailored suits, but the decision to dress Blanche in a series of white dresses results in a certain monotony. Peter West's lighting and Toby Jaguar Algya's sound are both fine.

The production improves markedly in the final scene, when everyone gets down to the business of cutting a new deal for themselves, but for the most part this is an artificially bright treatment of a play that should disturb more. Widowers' Houses was termed by Shaw one of his "plays unpleasant," but you wouldn't know that here. -- David Barbour

(14 March 2016)

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