Sacred Cows: George Bernard Shaw liked to skewer ’em now and again. Perfect, then, that director Ethan McSweeny should take a fond poke at garrulous old GBS himself with the opening gambit in his sleek, smart staging of Major Barbara. Wouldn’t do to spoil the effect, so let’s just say that with a single gesture (you’ll want to watch those title-card projections), McSweeny deftly, wittily disarms audiences who might be stressing about a long evening in the company of the old blowhard’s overwrought, overwritten speeches.
Minutes later comes the discovery—the delightful surprise, to anyone who’s suffered through the suffocations of subpar Shaw—that the London drawing room of Lady Britomart Undershaft, astringently estranged wife of munitions baron Andrew Undershaft, seems to have been commandeered by a swarm of Oscar Wilde’s best and brittle-est. By which I mean: Thank god for a director and a cast who remember that Shaw’s stern sociopolitical lectures come with plenty of laugh lines.
Characters who barely register as filler in less finely tuned stagings—Lady Brit’s clotheshorse younger daughter, that young lady’s amiably clubbable dimwit of a fiancé, even the overstarched butler, for heaven’s sake—get crisply choreographed moments of comedy here. Among the more central parts, Tom Story’s Stephen Undershaft, who’d be heir apparent were it not for a tradition that passes Andrew’s factories of mass destruction on to a worthy orphan, is the very model of a feckless, apron-strung aristocrat.
And what bliss to find, at the other end of those strings, the sublime Helen Carey: Shaw clearly finds Stephen’s mum a bit of a relic, a stubborn standard-bearer for a shockingly privileged and increasingly out-of-touch crowd, but if Carey’s blithely bossy Lady Brit is what a “very typical managing matron of the upper class” is like, I want a little more managing in my life.
Of course the show is called Major Barbara—Lady Brit’s eldest daughter has joined the Salvation Army, you see, and is fervently working out her opposition to Dad’s value system at one of its shelters—and it’s got a solid lead actress in the title role. It’s not Vivienne Benesch’s fault that the show’s sparkle dims a bit during that longish visit to her soup kitchen; in fact, she’s offstage for big chunks of it, leaving the field to some fairly dull byplay among a squalid squadron of East Enders who’ve learned to game the Salvation system. (A moment or two of highly public piety, it seems, is a small price to pay for a plate of hot food.) The notion that the poor and the wealthy might both have a vested interest in the charity business might have been a startling one in Shaw’s time, but the impact is somewhat lessened nowadays. And all McSweeny’s bustle can’t keep it from feeling a little belabored—though there’s certainly an ironic bite, in light of all those donor names inscribed on the various surfaces of Harman Hall, to Father Undershaft’s cynical observation that the purest of nonprofits “exist by selling themselves to the rich.”
And in any case, things pick right up again once we get back to the drawing room, and then to the armaments factory, and to the romantic second-guessing and the philosophically flexible maneuverings about the inheritance. The repartee is rousing, the satire sharp, and really, any director who can get four separate laughs out of four separate exits, not to mention a belly laugh out of a bit with a throw pillow—in a Shaw play?—is unmistakably on his game.