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Do you suppose George Bernard Shaw might have penned a play on a dare?
After seeing Washington Stage Guild’s latest excavation of an obscure Shavian text, I find myself imagining a youngish Old Socialist comparing notes in 1912 with dramatists Arthur Wing Pinero, J.M. Barrie, and Harley Granville-Barker on the drubbings they’d all been taking from the critics of late. I see Shaw railing, Pinero drinking, Barrie waxing philosophical, and all of them perking up when pragmatic Granville-Barker suggests some retaliatory tit-for-tat: Mightn’t one of them scribble a sampler of their collective oeuvre—say, a well-made drawing-room comedy about rebellious middle-class children and their prudish parents—and then skewer the aisle-sitters by trotting out their predictably banal critical responses onstage in an epilogue, before the pundits had a chance to do so in print? Serve the bastards right, right?
In my fantasy, Shaw—having done time as a critic himself—sees the possibilities immediately, runs with the idea, and six months later, unveils Fanny’s First Play. Had this been the real genesis, the play might well have resembled the nifty in-joke Washington Stage Guild has rediscovered and mounted just a tad too respectfully. A bit of judicious pruning would have been helpful—the play-within-a-play does run on. Still, the payoff is pretty priceless.
Actually, so’s the setup. Fanny (Jennifer Timberlake) is home from uni at Cambridge, where she’s written a play she’s sure will shock her dad (Bill Largess), a powdered-wig-wearing aesthete who, at the dawn of the 20th century, is still trying to hold back the vulgarity of the 19th so he can live in the 18th. Not knowing anything about the content of Fanny’s play, Dad hires actors and invites critics, telling no one where he got the script so he’ll get an honest response to it.
At which point we meet the critics—one intellectual (Laura Giannarelli, peering imperiously down her nose), one artistic (Vincent Clark blustering in a feathered hat and cape), one honest (a snarling Lynn Steinmetz), and one representing the average British playgoer (Michael Glenn, flask and vacant expression ever at the ready). And then Fanny’s play gets under way, riffing comically on class snobbery, religion, the Fabian Society, gender politics, and national stereotypes. After three acts of sitcomplications that double as dramaturgical spoofery—children grow up, parents regress, families come together—the critics try, in their blithe and blithering way, not merely to weigh in on the artistic merits of what they’ve seen but also to figure out who authored it. “Old-fashioned Ibsenite drivel,” posits one. “Intellect without emotion; it must be Shaw,” argues another. Easily as twitty as the play-within’s characters, the aisle-sitters prove perhaps three times as funny. Dad, meanwhile, fumes over the death of drama.
Though rarely produced in the last half-century, Fanny’s First Play was Shaw’s biggest commercial success when it premiered on Broadway in 1912—running longer than Arms and the Man, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Candida, Man and Superman, or The Devil’s Disciple (just five of the 15 or so previous works it eclipsed). From WSG’s production, it’s easy to see why the show succeeded with an audience familiar enough with the conventions of the well-made play to enjoy seeing them tweaked, as well as why audiences in later, less well-made eras might have cooled to Shaw’s many nods to, and winks at, those conventions.
Perhaps to avoid that potential chill, director John MacDonald treats the central section of Fanny’s First Play—the play-within-a-play—as nothing more complicated than a sturdy little boulevard comedy. He underlines its mild but amusing observations about middle-class respectability and keeps things running smoothly, shifting gears occasionally for a bit of physicality or of soliloquizing. Basically, he plays the script straight, safe, and down the middle. And that works well enough for writing that, after all, is supposed to be by a youngster fresh out of college.
Still, if Shaw is doing even half as much satirizing of playwrights in the body of the work as he is of critics in the introduction and epilogue that frame the evening, that fact’s not evident in this staging. For all its rhetorical feints and parries, Fanny’s First Play seems less a duel of ideas than a dissertation on theatrical form. The fun lies in what the play is, not in what it argues, so something’s lost when what it is seems a little bland. Fortunately, while the plotting may be obvious (presumably deliberately so) and the characters stock (ditto), the jokes remain vintage Shaw, and when the onstage critics finally have their say in the last 20 minutes, the Shawnanigans levitate gratifyingly.
WSG’s performers do a lot of scampering around Ned Mitchell’s studiedly symmetrical setting as they double as characters in the framing device and actors putting on the play. Glenn is a reliable riot as both that flask-carrying critical Everydork and as a grounded but supercilious butler/Pygmalion to Jessica Frances Dukes’ satin-swathed Cockney bawd. Timberlake and Jason Stiles have fun as timid young hellions, with Stiles particularly deft during a knockabout slapstick routine that could have been cribbed from a Mack Sennett comedy. Disapproving mightily of every hint of rebellion in these youngsters are Clark and Largess as jowl-shaking fathers and Giannarelli and Steinmetz as commonsensical mothers. And as a bemusedly courtly foreigner plunked down among Brit xenophobes, Chris Davenport sends the evening’s most breathtaking Shavian soliloquy—a five-minute exegesis that inverts English and French stereotypes—soaring hilariously on a wave of elongated vowels and softened consonants.
No sooner has he finished than the critics start in on what they’ve just seen, getting everything wrong, as critics always do. Reassuring, that. Also very funny.
A pair of roaring fireplaces greets audiences in the high-ceilinged parlor Solas Nua has commandeered for its premiere of Marina Carr’s The Mai. The Josephine Butler Parks Center is an aging 15th Street NW mansion, not a playhouse, but if its grand second-floor sitting room isn’t really a theatrical space, it’s certainly an inviting one, with a cellist playing softly near one fireplace and a warm glow emanating from crystal table lamps scattered around a large L-shaped room.
When those lights—a couple of which lie capsized on the floor, providing footlightlike illumination for the playing area—start to dim for the beginning of the play, an intriguing, offbeat theatricality is achieved. The cello, the fires’ soft warmth, and the feverish look of a woman named Mai peering anxiously at her returning husband all fuse into a persuasively moody opening tableau.
That mood is squandered pretty quickly, but it suggests what directors Linda Murray and Caroline Kenney saw in The Mai—a tale of an Irish clan in which women sacrifice the happiness of their children to fairytale notions of true love. Program notes refer to Irish myth, the ghosts of Owl Lake, and the ancient culture of the druids, but in Solas Nua’s flatfooted production, the poetry is provided primarily by cellist Karin Loya, and the warmth by those entirely literal fires.
The characters are also pretty literal. Not just Mai (Kerry Waters), an ostentatiously masochistic wife who has built the castle of her dreams, hoping her wandering hubby will treat her like a princess. There’s also the granny, an opium-smoking, hundred-year-old crone who natters on about the “nine-fingered fisherman” who rocked her world and caused her to neglect her children. And Millie, Mai’s daughter who’s feeling neglected and narrates the family saga snidely from the sidelines. Mai’s sisters (one slutty, the other smug) and judgmental aunts complete the family portrait.
Small wonder Mai’s hubby sought refuge elsewhere, though he, too, has a flair for the literal (he bows Mai’s breast as if she were a cello), as well as a masochistic streak. The directors have managed a few mildly amusing moments, but their approach to the material is mostly to let it unfold in leisurely fashion, with characters taking long moments to put scratchy records on a phonograph that pretty clearly isn’t playing them, or to air-bow a viola da gamba as Loya plays a cello solo across the room. There’s much peering in at windows, and at one point on opening night, a missed entrance stranded Stephanie Roswell’s shivering Millie on a frigid balcony, where she stood in the spotlight long enough to provide suspense and pathos to an evening otherwise lacking in those qualities. Fortunately, this was at the very beginning of Act 2, and the waning fires had been restoked during intermission, so she could warm herself pretty quickly. They’d died away to embers by the curtain call, more or less in sync with the production.CP