Engaging Shaw: The Courtship of Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Payne-Townsend
Also see Bob's review of My Fair Lady
When Shaw and Charlotte meet in 1896, Shaw is a 42-year-old professed bachelor, and Charlotte is a 39-year-old sophisticated Irish heiress. They are brought together by their mutual friends, the recently married Sidney Webb and Beatrice (Potter) Webb. The Webbs (aided by Shaw) are the progenitors of the Fabian Society which advocated the democratic emergence of socialism, and founders of the London School of Economics which promoted Fabian theory. The Webbs complete the quartet of characters on stage.
Shaw, who has yet to taste success and recognition as a playwright, is full of pride and boastfulness about his romantic conquests. Charlotte, whose means are well beyond those of the struggling Shaw, is an unconventional, independent woman who has had more than her share of attention and conquests. The Webbs bring them together at their summer cottage in Stratford (U.K.), and they are almost immediately drawn to one another. However, their two-year courtship is hard and rocky, largely because Shaw fiercely and stubbornly clings to his determination never to have his wings clipped by the expectations of a spouse. He also has the less forcefully invoked worry of people seeing Shaw as marrying Charlotte to obtain the benefits of her wealth. Charlotte, totally devoted to Shaw, makes herself indispensable to him. It is not a ploy. She wants to devote her life to being his aide and secretary, and his caregiver. This is not enough. After all, a ploy will be necessary to break Shaw's resistance. Although they do have sex, it is important to neither. There is a comic centerpiece in the second act when Shaw alone in London, the Webbs in America, and Charlotte traveling about Europe, correspond by letter in a three-way roundelay that is both fast and funny, if a bit too broad.
Author John Morogiello's literate comedy is not Shavian in the sense that it is not concerned with the political, economic, social justice and class issues, which are at the heart of Bernard Shaw's plays. However, Engaging Shaw includes "excerpts from Bernard Shaw," and, as they are, they blend in seamlessly with Morogiello's writing. Also of great importance is that he created a fully believable Shaw. Credit for this must be shared by the performance of the reliable Ames Adamson. The brilliantly witty, crankily iconoclastic Shaw, whom we think we know, is combined with a touch of the less public, not for display, tenderly sincere Shaw in Adamson's performance.
Katrina Ferguson's Charlotte has an air of easy assurance. The performance is nicely calibrated so as to never suggest arrogance. Despite her determination to capture Shaw, Ferguson embodies author Morogiello's picture of a woman who will be fine if Shaw does not capitulate.
Marc Geller is a bit too cartoonish and overly emphatic as the formidable Sidney Webb. In fairness to the accomplished Geller, he is following the template which the author has laid down. Helen Mutch brings dimension to the role of Beatrice in subtly conveying her commitment to be loyal to her husband despite her own attraction to Shaw.
Director Langdon Brown has elicited fine performances and, for the most part, has shown a smooth, well-paced stylish touch. The cottage set by Charles Corcoran, which has to double as Shaw's office in the second act, is airy and playable. The excellent period costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and the effective, unobtrusive lighting by Jill Nagle are further assets.
Getting a little heavy here given the lightness of this play, great humanity is inherent in Shaw's writing, as well as in his -5 year marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townsend. At the time that she passed away, Shaw reportedly completely broke down. Biographers have attributed all kinds of conjectured and conflicting psychological explanations for the fact that their marriage was celibate. In actuality, Shaw's psychology in these personal areas is something of a mystery. However, sexual proclivities not withstanding, Shaw and his Charlotte would seem to have had a long, close and happy marriage.
Engaging Shaw would likely benefit from a bit more weight. Still, as it now stands, it is a well crafted and intelligent romantic comedy. Though New Jersey Rep describes Engaging Shaw in their advertising as an anti-romantic, romantic comedy, I found nothing anti-romantic about it.
Engaging Shaw continues performances (Eves.: Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm/ Mats.: Sat. 3 pm; Sun. 2 pm) through April 13, 2008 at the New Jersey Repertory Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
Engaging Shaw by John Morogiello with excerpts from Bernard Shaw; directed by Langdon Brown