There is an engaging sub-genre of theater, that one might call the battle of wits or the comedy of intellect, that takes some of the greatest minds in history and brings them to life, with all their quirks and quips condensed and their minds and hearts laid bare in two hours. The style includes fine works such as Stoppard’s Arcadia and Shakespeare in Love, Shaffer’s Amadeus, and, closer to home, Zinn’s Marx in Soho, which appeared in this summer’s Fringe, and Gunderson’s Emilie, which opens at Silver Spring Stage next week. Engaging Shaw is a worthy addition to this club.
Engaging Shaw, by Gaithersburg resident John Morogiello (author of Blame it on Beckett among other works), is a romantic comedy for people who think they’re too mature and too smart for romantic comedies. The title is a triple play on words: based on a true story, it concerns the machinations of a woman who wants to be engaged to the very engaging George Bernard Shaw, but who also engages with him in wars of words.
The play has been performed off-Broadway, in Europe, and across the U.S., but this is its DC area premiere. It is produced by Best Medicine Rep, the new professional theater company based in Gaithersburg that is devoted to producing new comedies, and only new comedies.
This is a worthy aim. There seems to be a widespread opinion among theatre cognoscenti that in order to be artistically worthy, a play must be serious, depressing and gritty; it must force the audience to confront the worst facets of human life and existence – and then they wonder why audiences don’t flock to them in droves. What some people don’t seem to realize is that there is more than enough darkness and despair in the world right now — we don’t need to be forced to recognize it; we know it all too well. What we desperately need is to be taken away from it, for just a little while. Another little-known fact is that good comedy actually takes more talent than tragedy. It can confront all the elements of human nature and existence that drama can, but it also has to make the audience laugh. As Best Medicine Rep sums up their mission: “We believe that the comic theater is the cure for what ails us.”
Engaging Shaw fulfills this mission well. The venue is unusual, in a dedicated theater carved out of a disused retail space in the Lakeforest Mall. After passing under the Best Medicine Rep sign with its comedy and tragedy mask coupled with an Rx symbol (just don’t mistake it for a medi-spa), and passing through an art gallery, the audience finds itself in an intimate theater. Morogiello’s simple but appropriate set consists of two very Victorian window treatments, a fireplace, a couch, desk, chair and case full of books. Melissa Carpenter’s capable lighting design accomplishes the rest, especially in the second act where a series of spotlights reveal the characters writing letters to each other from around the world. Through Elizabeth Kemmerer’s elaborate and lovely costumes, the women’s dress changes mark the passage of time.
Stan Levin’s direction is seamless, and seemingly effortless. He uses the furniture, the stage, and the off-stage areas to fluid and perfect comic effect. Best of all, he enables the actors to do what they do best. The evening sparkles with bons mots, witty ripostes, and amusing characters worthy of Oscar Wilde. And the accents – Irish for Shaw and Charlotte, working-class British for Sidney Webb, and sharp and upper-crusty for his wife Beatrice – are, as they say on that side of the Pond, “spot on.”
The author himself fills the title role, allowing the audience to see the part as it was meant to be played. Morogiello is excellent, managing to take an amazingly obnoxious, self-centered cad and make him charming. Somehow it is not impossible to see what all these women see in Shaw. It is also easy to believe that this is the man who created the irascible, infuriating, but somehow lovable Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. The stories echo each other – a self-satisfied, pseudo-superior man encourages a woman to be her best self, and then is lost and lonely when she doesn’t need him anymore.
His best friends are Sidney and Beatrice Webb, eminent socialists and founders of the London School of Economics. Sidney is played to marvelous comic effect by Terrence Heffernan. He has the unenviable job of declaiming several socialist speeches, and he turns them into comic masterpieces simply through his accent and emphasis. But then, this is an actor who can turn bringing a tea tray into the room and leaving again into a comedic tour de force.
Beatrice (Melissa B. Robinson) is an excellent foil for him – all nasal aristocratic accent, snappy ripostes and sharp angles. She is terrific as a woman who thinks she is in control of everything until she realizes she doesn’t even know her own mind.
The engaging heroine, Charlotte Payne-Townshend (Rebecca A. Herron) shows how an intelligent woman could fall in love with Shaw against her better judgment. She can move from amused incredulity to sly banter to romantic despair with equal facility. She and Robinson are well matched. While Beatrice is pointy but has a hidden soft core, Charlotte seems soft and round, but reveals a spine of steel.
The story dashes through disquisitions on economics, socialism, male-female relationships and marriage at a dizzying pace. But the constants throughout are the wit, intelligence, good humor and true equality of these men and women. And it is incredibly refreshing to see adult entertainment about love that is not sexual but intellectual.
Engaging Shaw is a delight from start to finish, and Best Medicine Rep is a welcome addition to the pantheon of the DC area’s professional theaters.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one intermission.
Engaging Shaw plays through September 30, 2018, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm, Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30, at Best Medicine Rep Theater at Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD 20877. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online.