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A nun, a historian, and George Bernard Shaw walk into a bar. The nun says, “what the hell?” and Shaw replies, “I thought this was…”
Okay, not really. But that setup is more or less the starting point for Washington Stage Guild’s The Best of Friends, in which playwright Hugh Whitemore charts the unlikely friendship of a cloistered nun, a celebrated museum director, and old redbeard himself.
Shaw (Bill Largess), as you might expect, has the best lines, but Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Catherine Flye) lays firm claim to the plucky sunshine concession, while the man who brought them together, Sir Sydney Cockerell (David Bryan Jackson), dithers congenially enough to hold his own.
McLachlan is the dame whose writings on Gregorian Chant renewed the popularity of plainsong after centuries of neglect. She lived a sheltered, cloistered life, but was, as Shaw described her, “an enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind.” Though Cockerell was an adamant atheist, and Shaw pretty iconoclastic regarding matters of faith, they got along well, and saw each other reasonably frequently through several decades of friendship—Dame Laurentia mostly through the bars in the gate of her Benedictine convent.
To fashion a theatrical evening, Whitmore has distilled their lines principally from letters, such that the actors speak at, rather than to, one another most of the time. There’s not much in the way of dramatic urgency, but the two are amusing company as they drift winsomely—or in Shaw’s case, cantankerously—into old age.
Largess cuts a pixie-ish figure as the elderly playwright, forever darting offstage as if his presence is urgently required elsewhere. He doesn’t look much like Shaw, but affects a persuasively blunt Shavian manner. “I can forgive Nobel for inventing dynamite,” he blusters at one point, “but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”
Flye’s nun is bubbly and only occasionally cross, while Jackson’s museum director talks of reason and facts in such an airy manner, he might as well be fantasizing them. It’s all very civilized, as their lives tilt gently towards frailty and bereavement, until finally Cockerell is left alone in his chair at center stage, wondering whether the angel of death has simply forgotten him.