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If you’re at all like me, you’re going to spend the entire first act of Washington Stage Guild’s Too True to Be Good wondering why this sparkling Shavian comedy isn’t produced more often. The evening opens with a series of uproarious broadsides lobbed at the British class system by doctors, slatterns, mothers, priests, patients, and microbes (yes, microbes—one of which is depicted on stage as a Spandexed, startlingly articulate green blob).
Before the show is 20 minutes old, a kidnapping plot has been set in motion, and relationships have been forged among a minister-turned-burglar, a hypochondriac-heiress-turned-opportunist, and a hotel-chambermaid-turned-countess, all of which will obviously prompt more class-based jests to come. If you’ve ever seen Shaw’s better-known Major Barbara or Arms and the Man, it will seem inconceivable to you as this first act unfolds that Too True to Be Good should be any less frequently produced.
Then Shaw, being Shaw, can’t resist telling you why so appealing a theatrical feast has been relegated to the stage’s back burner: “The play’s virtually over,” he has a character say with a conspiratorial grin, “but the characters will discuss it for two acts more.”
Damned if they don’t. And damned if the conversation doesn’t pale ever so slightly as the heiress and her kidnapper companions visit a secluded African beach (where the empire and the military mind-set get wittily shredded), and then a mountaintop aerie (where philosophers and religion receive their fair share of abuse). Shaw is an equal-opportunity puncturer of pretense, but he’s also inclined to indulge his characters when they get on a high horse. Clever as the dialogue’s phrasing may be, the final half-hour of Too True to Be Good feels decidedly attenuated.
Still, by that time, you feel he’s earned the right to tire you out a bit. Hasn’t he made you laugh at everything from soldiering (“You mistook this great military genius for a halfwit?…The symptoms are precisely the same”) to jurisprudence (“Justice is none the less justice because it is delayed and always by mistake”). How can you not love a guy who can toss off lines like that as mere preparation for grander discussions of Newtonian physics and determinism?
Washington Stage Guild’s cast includes many of the company’s usual suspects—Bill Largess as the embarrassed-to-be-preaching son of a well-known atheist, Lynn Steinmetz as a con woman fluent in accents, Bill Hamlin as a doctor who tells all his patients they’re suffering from microbes because “people insist on having microbes nowadays,” and Laura Giannarelli as an overprotective mother who keeps curing her children to death.
Joining them are Tricia McCauley, who plays the evening’s leading lady— the heiress gone native—and is fast becoming a company regular, as is Vincent Clark, who plays a blustery, easily befuddled colonel. And scenes are being stolen from all these capable folks by Brian McMonagle as the winsome, obsequious private who really runs the colonel’s operation, and by Tony Gudell as an unprepossessing working-class sergeant who knows how to tame countesses and chambermaids alike. Each of these enlisted men has a Monty Python-ish silly walk (McMonagle does a little hop each time he starts or stops, and Gudell has perfected a tight-assed, parade-ready swagger) that makes him as much a delight to watch as to listen to.
And, because Too True to Be Good has a lot on its mind, that’s saying something. Director John MacDonald clearly sees this play as a companion piece to Man & Superman and Heartbreak House, the World War I-based predecessors he’s recently staged for the company. And, as Shaw’s final speeches rail at war and opportunism, it’s easy to understand why. Still, MacDonald also recognizes that this play is a lighter work at heart, more distant from the war (it was first produced in 1932), with an author who was content to weave his jests into a protective tapestry for the audience for two-and-a-half acts before getting up on his soapbox.
A few moments of revelation flicker briefly in Love’s Fire, the evening of Shakespeare-inspired one-acts at Studio Theatre Secondstage, but not nearly enough to justify the show’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.
The unifying conceit of major contemporary playwrights riffing on the Bard’s love sonnets sounds promising—until you realize it doesn’t really unify anything. It’s just an excuse to put writers who seem to be from different planets—Eric Bogosian and Wendy Wasserstein, for instance—on the same bill. Give the playlets four different directors and cast them with earnest newcomers, and you’ve concocted a fine recipe for theatrical chaos. Count it as a victory of sorts that Studio’s production is merely scattered, rather than an outright mess.
The evening begins with a John Guare sketch in which acting students sit in a circle, Cliffs Notes in hand, trying to decipher Sonnet 154. That’s the one in which the phrase “Love’s fire” occurs, so it’s a reasonable decision to start an evening with that title. But the verse’s references to nymphs and votaries leave the students so sufficiently baffled that they decide to start elsewhere.
Sonnet 118 strikes them—and apparently struck author Eric Bogosian—as more straightforward. Confronted with the line, “being full of your ne’er-cloying sweetness, to bitter sauces did I frame my feeding,” the playwright constructs a farce in which a bride-to-be tells her nice-guy fiance that he’s too perfect for her—and that she’s consequently taken an abusive biker as her lover. Bogosian’s phrasing is significantly less delicate than the Bard’s: “I am a womb being readied for impalement and fertilization,” says the drunken leading lady, leaving it to her amiable fiance to figure out how to drive away the biker. Fortunately for all of them, he’s resourceful.
In the playlets that follow, other well-known authors do approximately what you would expect. Tony (Angels in America) Kushner responds to the love-struck ambivalence in Sonnet 75 by wildly overwriting a sketch about a gay man (played by Craig Pearman as a Woody Allen clone) with a crush on his lesbian shrink. William (March of the Falsettos) Finn creates a metaphor to match Sonnet 102’s “I would not dull you with my song,” in a musical number about an artist who thinks he lacks the technique to paint his lover’s portrait.
In other sketches, poet Ntozake (For Colored Girls…) Shange writes in her own rhythms about love’s melodies, Wendy (The Heidi Chronicles) Wasserstein reduces Shakespearean poetry to cocktail-party conversation, and Marsha (‘Night, Mother) Norman dreams up a creepy variation on La Ronde that slowly devolves into a group grope. And once the cast has run through all of those, it returns to playwright John (Six Degrees of Separation) Guare, who wraps things up with the most ambitious leap of the evening—interpreting Sonnets 153 and 154 through the prism of the Old Testament as an elaborate dissertation on humankind’s attempt to regain God’s attention after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Those unfamiliar with Guare’s absurdist early work may experience something of a disconnect at this point. “A sonnet,” says one of his characters helpfully, “is a hazy reminder of what we had in the Garden of Eden.”
Each sonnet is read both before and after the playlet that illustrates it, the first time with emphatic overemphasis by an actress who tries to wrest meaning from each syllable individually (which renders her all but unintelligible), the second time with a comparative simplicity that makes the sense of the lines clearer. If this is a directorial ploy to make patrons think they understand the sonnets better after seeing the plays, it’s ill-advised, albeit effective. If not, it’s just inept.
Some of the performances are fine—Leigh Jameson is amusingly miserable both as Bogosian’s bride-to-be and as Wasserstein’s cocktail-party hostess—but most are as scattered as the material. Ditto for the staging of an evening that ends up feeling an awful lot as if it were a collegiate Senior Scenes Workshop. CP