Marc Geller, Warren Kelley, Jamee Vance, Claire Warden
Jakob G. Hofmann
Engaging Shaw, a play by John Morogiello currently playing at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater, is the story of the courtship between George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte Payne Townshend. The play depicts a very unconventional relationship, which complicates itself over the course of a year as these two become friends, lovers and then husband and wife.
The interplay of words and relationships in the first half is urbane and eloquent as the audience is pulled along into a comfortable and fun ride.
The character of George Bernard Shaw is witty and entertaining, and his attraction to the opposite sex is obvious. Warren Kelly plays Mr. Shaw as a nineteenth century celebrity. As played by Mr. Kelly, the audience understands the magnetic personality of George Bernard Shaw. In Charlotte Payne Townshend, Shaw has found his match, and Claire Warden gives vigorous life to the character. She is a woman of means, which was quite valued and intelligent as well, which was not nearly as valued at the end of the 1800s. Claire Warden admirably gives life to this woman who must not reveal too much or risk ostracism from society. In Shaw, she finds a man equal to her strength.
Marc Geller and Jamee Vance play their married friends, the Webbs. Sidney and Beatrice Webb are great friends of Shaws and are setting up the London School of Economics, where Miss Townshends money would be quite welcome. The show sets up a complex interplay between these four characters, and the actors pull it off.
However, a rift develops in the show between the first and second halves. The first act revels in wordplay, both flirtatious and intelligent, and with the dispatch of convention. The characters take great pleasure in tossing out the rules. And then comes the second half, which plays as if someone in Hollywood called for a rewrite of the show within a safe romantic comedy mold; it feels grafted on and uncomfortable or perhaps too comfortable.
After a cursory trip through painful tears and artificial arguments, the play is concluded with a happy, tidy bow. After the challenges and lightness of the first act, the second act felt dull and leaden despite, or perhaps because of, the trite ending.
The size of the play challenges the space of the tiny Dorothy Strelsin space, the actors are on top of the audience. The actors use this to their great advantage by incorporating small gestures and smiles that might be lost in a larger venue. The director, Jakob G. Hofmann, and the lighting designer, Matthew McCarthy are able to give the illusion of separateness as required in the second act.
Ultimately, Engaging Shaw is a beautifully done show let down, through no fault of the actors, by a lackluster second act.