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Unlike Shakespeare, Shaw can’t be contemporised—you can’t dress him up in a leather coat and three-day stubble, and you can’t stage him around a swimming pool. Shaw is both gloriously and tediously what he is: gloves and morning coats and nervous pipe-puffing over giving women the franchise. The political radicalism of his plays retains some resonance (although many people oversell that quality), but the pleasures of Shaw now lie chiefly in comic performance and verbal fun. Still, while the Washington Stage Guild’s new version of Getting Married lets the script do the talking, it also tunes up the other elements to keep the audience from getting too comfortable. It remains your great-grandfather’s Shaw, but even your great-grandfather’s Shaw knew how to push a few buttons.

Getting Married was an evolutionary work for Shaw, a necessary step in the development of his “discussion plays” that began with the final act of Major Barbara and reached fruition in Misalliance. A nearly three-hour work originally performed without intermission (don’t worry, the Stage Guild gives you one), Getting Married is a continuous conversation in a single setting, the thread passing among 12 characters who come and go from the spacious kitchen of Bishop Bridgenorth. The upper-crust but lax-upper-lip Bridgenorths are in the business of marriage: The bishop and his wife have already given away five daughters, and the wedding of the sixth, Edith, is scheduled for that very morning. “A mistake, to get married,” says the bishop at one point. “But an even greater mistake not to.” Which both nicely sums up Getting Married and hardly scratches the well-polished surface of the Bridgenorth mess.

As family and friends arrive one by one for the ceremony, they tell marital tales better suited for Soap Opera Digest than Bride’s magazine. The bumbling General “Boxer” Bridgenorth (Nigel Reed) has had nine or 10 proposals turned down by Lesbia Grantham (Laura Giannarelli), who wants children but wants to be paid by the state for having them. Boxer’s brother, the 50-something Reginald (Morgan Duncan), faked beating up his 20-year-old wife, Leo (Tricia McCauley), so that she could get a divorce and run off with the smug young thruster St. John Hotchkiss (Steven Carpenter)—except that Leo would like to be married to both of them, and the men prefer each other’s company to hers. The greengrocer Mr. Collins (Conrad Feininger) calls his mate “a born wife and mother—that’s why my children all ran away from home.” Even Bishop Bridgenorth (played avuncularly by Leo Erickson) is surprisingly liberal on the subject: He predicts that temporal partnerships will eventually replace marriage, and he shares with his wife, Alice (Nicola Daval), the numerous love letters anonymous parishioners send him.

So only a Pollyanna would lift an eyebrow when Edith (Elizabeth McNamara) and her fiance, Cecil Sykes (Jason Stiles), both get cold feet—Edith because she’s just read about how constricting England’s marital laws are for women, Cecil because he’s worried Edith’s firebrand honesty will beggar him via slander suits. The other characters work overtime in the very funny first act to put Edith and Cecil back together again while poring over the Humpty Dumpties of each other’s situation. Of course, this is Shaw, so myriad other social issues get tossed up and batted around like shuttlecocks: religious inflexibility, the cowardice of politicians, class hypocrisy, and how just being English is a tremendous obstacle to getting what you want. Getting Married, though, spends most of its first 90 minutes wittily not living up to its title. “I can understand a great deal,” eventually implores the bachelor (and stout defender of marriage) Boxer. “But when it comes to flat-out polygamy and polyandry, we’ve got to do something!” And that something turns out to be…more flat-out polygamy and polyandry.

Stage Guild’s production has two important factors going for it: John MacDonald’s direction and delightful turns by many of its actors. MacDonald’s creative blocking stretches the bandbox Source Theatre space and Greg Mitchell’s no-nonsense set design into a physical matrix where egos and arguments can clash like swords. The actors always seem to be standing in the right place from which to launch their mini position papers. MacDonald has also cast against type in several instances, and it usually works. The black Duncan as Reginald and the white, skinny Reed as Boxer look neither the least bit related nor conventional; but their physical mismatch accentuates the differences in their lives and philosophies.

It helps, too, that Duncan, Reed, and several others deliver eminently watchable performances, eccentricities that stop just short of caricature. Duncan’s dashing but pained Reginald has the classic British fop down cold, the hand thrust just so in the pocket and the precise turn of the heel. Being an agreeable cuckold has become all too much for him: He has a great way of spitting venom at Hotchkiss and then falling into a chair with maximum exasperation, a permanent headache pinching him between the eyes. And though Reed’s Boxer is hardly the Colonel Mustard one expects in the role (he’s swimming in his uniform, for one thing, and his mutton-chop sideburns seem the size of squirrels’ tails), Reed nicely conveys both buffoonishness and repression in Boxer’s defense of a status quo he on some level recognizes is insane. (Pointing to the coin collection of medals on his chest, Boxer tells Lesbia, “I won all the early ones trying to get killed. You know why”—meaning, to impress her. Men are as trapped as women in the system Shaw is excoriating.)

Carpenter’s Hotchkiss, who’s so much of a patrician that he lost a battle in the Boer War just to sabotage his lower-class commander’s career, starts out as a deliciously cynical commentator and ends up ass-over-tea-kettle with desire for the wife of a coal merchant. You hate his snobbery and love his sneering energy—love the way, like a young William F. Buckley, Carpenter juts out his lower jaw to the point of dislocation when he’s forced to utter such delicate phrases as “unsatisfied need.” And the best of all might be Feininger’s Collins, whose confident efficiency is an anchor amid the wild debate.

But the fundamental feminism of a Shaw play demands that its women be at least as coruscating as the men, and the Stage Guild’s female actors aren’t up to pitch. Giannarelli’s Lesbia, who has a tidiness fetish, is robotic rather than neurotic—gliding right past eternal suitor Boxer without a single rasp of friction. MacCauley is shrill as the young wife Leo. And McNamara plays the crucial role of Edith with an uncertain accent and without the fire of righteous indignation that Getting Married absolutely must have from her. She sounds like a pouty girl trying to shock her elders rather than a young woman refusing their hypocrisy and entrapments.

Equally problematic is the budding affair between Hotchkiss and Lynn Steinmetz’s Mrs. Collins, who appears in the second act as Hotchkiss’ lower-class object of longing as well as the secret admirer of the bishop. Mrs. Collins is a woman of a certain age who frankly enjoys her sexuality, and Steinmetz inhabits the role with ferocity, bending Lesbia back with a stare at one point as if she’s deciding whether to maul her or not. Her Mrs. Collins and Carpenter’s Hotchkiss are soul mates on one level—both cunning, attacking “bullies,” as he puts it. But the two give off mutual admiration instead of pheromones, and the second act (which largely depends on their sexual negotiation) sags. Shaw’s dialogue is much weaker here, too: The monologue of Mrs. Collins’ trance, for example, in which Shaw intended to say all that Edwardian women couldn’t, is nonsensical word-music.

But Shaw’s frivolous debates always trump his earnest sermons, anyway. When all the characters of Getting Married try to invent a contract of “alliances” to replace marriage, it’s like Seinfeld with philosophy: Nobody wants to give an inch on preferences, and nobody can agree on the first thing. Law alone won’t make us behave better, Shaw is saying: We have to do the hard work on ourselves by ourselves. And what makes Shaw a modernist—and perhaps more modern than we are today—is that he never shirks from that hard work. All of the assumptions, all of the issues are always on the table, and there’s always something more to be said about them. “The conversation of the world has been exhausted long ago,” says Boxer. But he and the rest keep on talking, and that’s how they get somewhere. CP