Written by John Morogiello
Directed by Jackob G. Hofmann
for Abingdon Theatre's delightful production of John Morogiello's Engaging Shaw
is both visually striking and apt; it shows the bearded head of theater titan George Bernard Shaw, and this head is made up of nothing but words, large and small, words like socialism, gradualism, permeation, superiority and so on and on. This man was all mind, in many ways, but the triumph of Morogiello's play is that it reveals the impish, human side of Shaw without once diminishing his exhausting rhetorical genius and flair for convincing argument. Every season, we suffer through threadbare plays about major playwrights like Oscar Wilde, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, even Shakespeare, and 95 percent of them don't even begin to show us what they might have been like as men, let alone how they achieved what they did when they sat down to write. Shaw is a particularly difficult case to dramatize since his life
was so much a life of the mind, but it was also the life of a popular playwright, a playwright who knew how to get across his points with flashes of amusement and character comedy. Smartly, Morogiello lets many of Shaw's ideas simply speak for themselves, but this isn't just a play of quotations and biographical "and then he did this." Engaging Shaw
is cheeky enough to address the subject of Shaw's courtship of his future platonic wife, the wealthy Charlotte Payne Townshend, and it offers genuine imaginative insight into what might have happened between them behind closed doors, a mini-Shaw play and battle of wills that ends in an unconventional draw.
I've read biographies of Shaw, and some of them paint him as a pretty dour and forbidding character, but Morogiello's youngish Shaw (Warren Kelley) is a life-force scapegrace who zeroes in on women in a most unusual manner. When Kelley struts about the small Abingdon stage in his fancy boots in the first scene, he pleasantly assaults Charlotte Townshend (Claire Warden) with a seductive mixture of bragging arrogance, careful distance and unmistakable physical boldness. The space is small, so the audience is practically on top of the actors, but this doesn't deter the performers from making big choices, which, thankfully, always seem to pay off; seeing this play is very much like being in the room with the characters, so that we can catch every nuance of what's at stake. Kelley strides about purposefully, and Warden watches him carefully, her eyes glimmering with skepticism, bemusement, and attraction in spite of herself.
Shaw's friends and fellow socialists, Beatrice (Jamee Vance) and Sidney Webb (Marc Geller) provide a shining example of the kind of marriage of minds that might be in the cards for Shaw and Charlotte, but it's not as simple as that; Beatrice is in love with Shaw, but she doesn't know it. In one skillfully written and beautifully directed scene (kudos to director Jackob G. Hofmann), Charlotte gently confronts Beatrice about her feelings for the playwright, and how she always looks to her husband Sidney for support; when Shaw enters, Beatrice tries to speak to him, instantly looks at Sidney, then knows that what Charlotte just said is true. This scene opens up a chasm of emotion beneath the Shavian lectures on marriage, and it tells us, indirectly, about the kind of humiliating experience Shaw was so scared of and sought to fight off, successfully, with watertight reasoning and sheer Irish effrontery. Morogiello brings out the childishness of Shaw, but this never diminishes him as man or artist; instead, this outstanding, excitingly acted play offers us a window into what made him what he was.
(photo credit: Kim T. Sharp)