Shaw was an inveterate correspondent, often sending many letters per day to individuals he admired, whether or not he had met them. Hugh Whitemore's The Best of Friends describes an ongoing correspondence Shaw had with both Dame Laurentia McLachlan, an abbess who fought to improve conditions for cloistered women, and Sir Sydney Cockerell, a museum curator and collector who rose from poverty to his position. Anthony Wynn's Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship is based on correspondence Shaw undertook with Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet and sexual protégé of Oscar Wilde. The two corresponded for years but only met once in person. Finally, arguably the most famous of the plays is Jerome Kilty's Dear Liar: A Comedy of Letters, which is based on Shaw's romantic correspondence with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a stage actress.
Famously introverted and socially inept, Shaw's passion emerges in his writing, which is lively, assertive and highly witty. So, having actors perform Shaw's letters typically results in a good deal of comic repartee. Portraying Shaw as a person who happens to be a writer, though, it more problematic.
Mr. Morogiello's play is set in a country cottage that Sidney (Michael Warner) and Beatrice (Natalie Gold) Webb have taken for the summer. Shaw (Rod Brogan), who, as usual, has lots of projects but no money, is staying with the Webbs, and the trio is visited by Charlotte Payne-Townshend (Angela Pierce), a middle-aged woman of means who has developed a fascination with Shaw. Beatrice, who has been unsuccessfully been trying to match-make between Shaw and a succession of women she knows, quickly recognizes that Charlotte might be the one who could break through to him. So, she enlists with her visitor's plan to make herself "indispensible" to Shaw. Much resistance and debate follow.
Mr. Morogiello seems to have gotten his facts either right or plausible, but his narrative of how Charlotte wears down her confirmed bachelor prey is entertaining but unlikely to have any basis in reality. The psychology of his play is similar to the notion of "friends with benefits": Shaw and Charlotte have sex, and Charlotte falls in love (it's always the woman in these stories, isn't it?). We may not know exactly why Shaw and Charlotte actually married (and stayed married for 45 years, until Charlotte died) but we do know that the marriage was never consummated. A forty-five year relationship without sex may be highly plausible, given Shaw's introversion and aversion to romance, but its basis was unlikely to have been a one-night stand.
Despite its faulty psychology, the play's bona fides as a romantic comedy are genuine, and after a bit of a slow start, the Old Globe cast settles into a groove that both moves along the plot and emphasizes the laughs. Director Henry Wishcamper's fluid staging takes good advantage of Wilson Chen's scenic design, which includes a large central table that consumes much of the central area of the White Theatre's stage. Alejo Vietti has dressed the cast in lovely period costumes, and Matthew Richards and Paul Peterson contribute quality lighting and sound designs. I was more than a little annoyed with the accents (coached by Ursula Meyer), however. The actors attempt to keep their accents suggestive, rather than exact, and that tact works reasonably for everyone but Mr. Warner, whose vowels consistently sound American, not British. I would have been happier with a bit more accent from each of the performers, and a lot more accuracy from Mr. Warner.
Despite my reservations about the play, the Old Globe production makes the best case for it.
Performances continue through September 4 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre on the Old Globe campus, 1363 Old Globe Way, in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets ($29-67) available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting the Old Globe's website.
The Old Globe presents Engaging Shaw, by John Morogiello. Directed by Henry Wishcamper, with Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), Alejo Vietti (Costume Design), Matthew Richards (Lighting Design), Paul Peterson (Sound Design) and Lavinia Henley (Stage Manager).
The cast includes Rod Brogan (George Bernard Shaw), Natalie Gold (Beatrice Webb), Angela Pierce (Charlotte Payne-Townshend) and Michael Warner (Sidney Webb).
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