The last time Washington Stage Guild put on a show by its favorite writer, the frighteningly prolific George Bernard Shaw, the troupe picked The Apple Cart, an odd political satire that ends with a hoary joke about how even a king must bow before his wife. Har!
In Wives and Wits, jokes about the contemptuous familiarity of marriage aren’t the coda; they’re the whole enterprise. And yet the show—shows, actually; it’s a double bill of short plays—is much sprightlier and more fun. The first of them, director Alan Wade’s Overruled, is the more successful of the pair, borne aloft by Nick DePinto’s elegant, Cary Grant-evoking turn as a dapper gentleman in courtly pursuit of what Shavian scholars probably don’t refer to as a piece of strange.
Strange would describe the playlet’s opening well enough, with the recorded voice of an elderly Shaw telling us what we’re about to see “is not an argument for or against polygamy or polyandry,” but instead “a trifling experiment in the matter of sex.” The experimentation remains confined to the talky contemplation phase, at least so far as we’re privy to it. But there’s a brisk musicality to the words that DePinto, Michael Glenn, Dawn Thomas, and Rana Kay—as impeccably dressed socialites engaged in an omnidirectional flirtation—render with variable levels of ease. If DePinto’s is the most fluid handling of Shaw’s elevated language (and the best British accent), Glenn—playing his romantic rival, of a sort—gets to unspool thejuiciest line: “I am her prospective husband; you are merely the actual one. I’m the anticipation. You’re the disappointment.” Ooooh, Shavian burn!
The piece that comes after intermission, Village Wooing, feels longer and less assured, suffering somewhat from its oblong shape. It’s three conversations, each separated by some unspecified interval of months, between a travel writer (Glenn) and a younger shopgirl he meets initially on the deck of a luxury ship (Kay). A widower, he is worldlier than she, given to scolding her that “You will find the bodily contacts to which you are looking forward neither convenient nor decorous.” (It may be worth pointing out that Shaw was in his late 70s when he wrote this.) With its jovial portrayal of a desperate sexual novice fairly chaining herself to a cranky older man’s ankle to get him to marry her, this is clearly the product of a vanished era that few women will mourn. Shaw’s rural, between-the-wars, pre-sexual revolution England feels quaint, well-spoken, and all in all a nice place to visit. I’m glad I don’t live there.