Evidently, it is easy to be charmed by an unconventional literary genius, but very difficult to love one. That is the crux of Engaging Shaw, American Players Theatre’s final show of the 2018 season, running in the Touchstone through November 18. Directed with gentle humor by David Frank, the company’s producing artistic director emeritus, the play is an entertaining mash-up of historical fact, quotations from Shaw himself, and playwright John Morogiello’s imagined — but definitely Shavian — rhetoric between two real people who were much too wise to woo peaceably.
We meet the irrepressible George Bernard Shaw (a delightfully changeable Jim Ridge) while he is visiting his friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Gavin Lawrence and Tracy Michelle Arnold) in a quaint old country house, away from bustling London. In addition to making an adorably functional couple, the Webbs are members of the nascent Fabian Society (a British socialist organization) and economists who are trying valiantly to start their own school. (You may have heard of it; The London School of Economics.)
The Webbs have philosophical conviction and a desire to bring about social change through education and advocacy, but they don’t have cash. So Beatrice combines fundraising for her school with matchmaking — trying to bring new members into the Fabian fold along with their financial support. One of her favorite development tools is her house guest Shaw. Charismatic and passionate, he woos eagerly and often. But he’s vowed never to marry, partly because the idea of one spouse having power over the other doesn’t mesh with his socialist views.
Ridge spends the first act of the play explaining — and reveling in — the ways he’s found to please women, please himself, achieve greatness through his writing, and remain completely his own man. His eager pupil is a fellow socialist, who is also visiting the cottage, is Charlotte Payne-Townsend, played by a radiant Colleen Madden. As luck would have it, Charlotte has a great deal in common with Shaw. They meet on the road when their bicycles collide — neither of them is an accomplished rider. They are both followers of socialism, both eschew marriage, and both are on Beatrice’s matchmaking list; Shaw for his wit, Charlotte for her fortune.
Before long there is an obvious spark between this unlikely pair. They are practically giddy in each other’s presence and their facility with language makes their romantic sparring both complicated and compelling. But as Charlotte plots with Beatrice on how to manipulate the situation in her favor, Shaw employs his own proven tactics to keep long-term romantic entanglements at bay. Soon loving and hating each other in equal measure, their road to marriage is as rocky as the path that regularly throws them both off of their bikes.
The production is “engaging” on many levels. Based heavily on Shaw’s own biography and language, it’s fun to see the author of plays that are known for their baked-in social and political manifestos, try to live by those strident principles in his real life. And while the “determined bachelor” versus the “smart woman using all her wiles” is a trope we’ve seen before, the play is both exhausting and satisfying because the scheming on both sides fails miserably. Indeed, just as the Fabian Society members and the Webbs argue, as the twentieth century looms large, it’s time for new paradigms, for discovering a “new nexus.”
Gavin Lawrence has fun as the good-natured husband and best friend who’s advice is often brushed aside. On more than one occasion he resigns himself to eating Swiss chocolate in the kitchen while the women sort out worldly matters. Tracy Michele Arnold navigates many reversals of her plans, and a few self-revelations with an eye toward practicality. Her resolve and determination eventually overcome her own personal foibles.
As verbal combatants and reluctant lovers, Ridge and Madden are well matched. Madden’s Charlotte leads with her heart and Ridge’s Shaw responds only with his head. A couple in real life, there is a strong undercurrent of affection that runs between their characters, even when they are saying horrible things to one another.
Ridge shows off his range with the moody Shaw; part bon vivant, part non-conformist for the sake of it, part egomaniac, passionate genius, and wounded soul. Madden is similarly challenged; harboring a complex love/hate relationship with Shaw, sorting out her own, largely untested intellectual abilities, and fighting her natural impulses in order to create a “new nexus” — a relationship on terms both parties can accept.
Left to his own devices, Ridge illustrates Shaw’s physical and mental decline with tremendous pathos and humor. Likewise, Madden’s awakening to the wider world — as she tries to forget Shaw — is an unexpected and lovely illustration of the heiress’s independent growth. Like the characters’ often cyclical arguments, the play comes full circle at last, in one of the hardest won courtships I’ve seen onstage.
· To the top-notch cast who, as usual, infuses the paragraphs of philosophical dialogue with truth and emotion.
· To APT, for finding a contemporary script that channels so much classical material and does it at a very sophisticated level.
· To scenic designer Yu Shibagaki* and costume designer Daniel Tyler Mathews for creating such a complete nineteenth century scene in the Tudor cottage.
· To director David Frank, for sharing his incredible love of language with audiences again this year.
*Extra points for Shibagaki for illustrating the gradual philosophical shifts in economics and politics that the Webbs describe, by placing a small, nineteenth century cast iron wood burning stove in the enormous hearth that occupies the center of the cottage. The stove looks so out of place at first, but is the necessary middle step towards modernization. . . and a whole new paradigm.