George Bernard Shaw certainly understood the paradoxes of money and power, but the production of his 1936 comedy The Millionairess now at the Olney Theatre Center, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, gets bogged down in its own wordiness. Director John Going's facility with farce falls flat here; about the only thing that isn't slow and overly earthbound is James Wolk's set, which seems to dance as it swirls past on its turntable between scenes.
Shaw's heroine is the imperious Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga (Julie-Ann Elliott), the wealthiest woman in England since her father's death. However, as she tells barrister Julius Sagamore (Nick DePinto), she feels poor because her inheritance was only £30 million, or £700,000 a year; before her father took risks with his fortune, he was worth many times that amount. (Remember, the time is 1935, during an international depression.)
Epifania doesn't really know what she wants, despite her money. She followed her father's instructions only to marry a man who could begin with £150 and turn it into £50,000. Unfortunately, the man she chose, the strapping if dim athlete Alastair Fitzfassenden (James Denvil), prefers to spend his time with the more down-to-earth Patricia Smith (Tonya Beckman Ross). Epifania has a companion of her own, Adrian Blenderbland (Michael McKenzie), but she doesn't consider him a worthy lover or her equal.
Problematically, the foil Shaw sets up to Epifania's self-absorptiona doctor (Paul Morella) who believes in making do with less than one needs, who challenges the wealthy woman to live on almost nothingis ostentatiously a "Mohammedan" from Egypt, a man who sees "the hand of Allah" everywhere. Shaw was equally skeptical of all religious traditions, to be sure, but this portrayal comes close to ethnic caricature.
Along the way, the script hits some uncomfortably contemporary notes, showing how sweatshop workers may collude with their employers because they can only choose between poor wages in unsafe conditions and no work at all, and how the acquisition of wealth can be easy for people who have no problems with exploiting those around them.
Elliott is a striking presence in Liz Covey's luxurious costume designs, but she is unable to make the character anything beyond Shaw's mouthpiece. Ross gives the most natural performance, as a woman who seems silly but gets what she wants.
Olney Theatre Center