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Hollywood is constantly inventing TV networks for us. In disaster movies, the announcement about the asteroid that’s going to devalue your 401(k) always comes from a blow-dried anchorbimbo sitting under a three-letter grouping you’ve never seen. WBN, GNN, GBC: anything to avoid invoking the wrath of real network lawyers.

John MacDonald, in the Man and Superman he has directed for Washington Stage Guild, exploits that tired old tradition in an oh-so-clever, oh-so-Beltway staging conceit. It’s the frame for a sprawling Act 3 dream sequence that more often than not gets cut. (Actually, I’ve read of productions that stage just this mammoth scene and skip the rest of the play—it’s that long, that challenging, that exciting.)

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It’s called “Don Juan in Hell,” and it involves an argument among the chief characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni: the wicked nobleman himself, his victim Donna Anna, and her father, the vengeful Commendatore, plus their host in the netherworld. With its impassioned rhetorical volleys about whether man’s chief impulse is to better or to destroy himself, it’s invigoratingly cerebral, punishingly difficult to perform—and widely thought to be one of the most searching conversations on philosophy and religion in the English language. MacDonald, tongue firmly in cheek, puts his combatants in modern dress, slaps mugs in their hands, and seats them around a circular coffee table to argue McLaughlin-style. There’s a makeup assistant with a powder compact, a producer who ticks off the seconds to airtime, and, of course, the genial moderator: Satan. And it’s all taking place on…GBS.

Read in an announcer’s sonorous voice-over, Shaw’s initials draw at least as big a laugh as any of his incisive epigrams. (And that’s saying something: Shaw’s easily as witty as Oscar Wilde, and he’s got more on his mind.) But though the playwright, that political animal, would doubtless have loved MacDonald’s quintessentially Washingtonian device, the talk-show gimmick would be just a gimmick if it weren’t so thoroughly thought out and so deftly executed. MacDonald even choreographs commercial breaks that fall during the scene’s quieter moments: As characters step down from their soapboxes and their dialogue shifts briefly from rhetorical to conversational, the producer walks onto the set and the assistants circle with coffee refills and pancake touch-ups. Then it’s back on the air, back to the debate. It’s a little thing, but it punctuates and lightens a formidably intellectual set piece, adding not just humor but immediacy and relevance. Would that the Stage Guild budget had allowed MacDonald a couple of studio cameras to circle on the fringes.

Shaw’s concerned with more than the meaning of life here, of course: Moral hypocrisy, the ramifications of class, and the worthlessness of the professional politician come up for pointed discussion, though after metaphysics he seems most concerned with making strategic observations about the battle of the sexes. Except in the Don Juan scene, the characters doing the interminable talking are turn-of-the-century Londoners from the privileged class: reform-minded Jack Tanner (Bill Largess), hard-line traditionalist Roebuck Ramsden (stately William Hamlin), and Ann Whitefield (graceful Lynn Steinmetz), the young woman whose joint guardians they’ve just become. The Don Juan dream comes as the three spend an unexpected night sleeping under the stars in the Sierra Nevada; how they get there has to do with Ann’s marital intentions and Jack’s earnest desire to avoid them, not to mention a young man who pines for Ann, that young man’s secretly wedded sister, and a band of leftist brigands who turn out to be capitalist tools led by a former London waiter.

It has been claimed that Shaw was always less interested in developing characters than in putting his endlessly interesting words in their mouths, and this production might seem to support that argument. There’s plenty of intellectual heat here, but not much heart: Re-reading a review of Arena Stage’s 1996 Arcadia this week, I was struck by the memory of how well Tom Stoppard married ideas and emotion in that magnificent piece of playwriting, and I thought briefly that Man and Superman, for all its passionate brilliance, doesn’t achieve the same essential fusion.

But on further reflection, I think it may; this production just doesn’t serve the play’s human side all that well. Uninteresting lighting and a set that feels slightly bargain-basement contribute to the problem, but basically it’s a question of style and casting. Nobody really seems focused on characterization here, with the possible exception of Steinmetz, who creates an Ann of equal parts serenity, artlessness, and guile. But Ann needs luminous youth, too; Steinmetz, for all her subtlety and rightness in performance, just doesn’t look as if she needs protecting. (Not that I have any concrete casting suggestions; Jenny Bacon, Arena’s exquisite Molly Sweeney, might be able to handle the role, but I’m damned if I can think of anybody else.)

Largess, though, redeems any shortcomings with a performance that cheapens adjectives like “bravura.” His command of Jack/Don Juan’s outrageous rhetorical flights is absolutely magisterial, and his delivery of them simply thrilling. Never pretentious, never overdramatic, never showy—just earnest, honest, and, in the end, exhilarating. Vincent Clark is very nearly his equal as the devil in the debate sequence and amusingly comic as the brigand chief besides. Washington Stage Guild

gambled big when it decided to include “Don Juan in Hell”; Clark and Largess cover the bet—and reap rewards

in spades.CP