We’re accustomed to thinking of George Bernard Shaw as long-winded, possibly because he couldn’t resist taking the other side of his own arguments. Hard to blame him, since he always came up with better rebuttals than his opponents could. But as he insisted on seeing three, four, five, and more sides to whatever question he’d mischievously brought up, the back-and-forth can sometimes make his plays feel a tad attenuated.
Well, the old windbag is back, but in snippets brief and playful enough—Washington Stage Guild is calling its evening of three one-act comedies Shaw’s Shorts—that no one’s likely to quibble even a little about length. Nor about being lectured to, though the plays tackle such theoretically weighty issues as honor, war, and the government’s role in culture. What finger-wagging there is is mostly accomplished with dispatch, so that Shaw can get back to pulling his own beard and arching those spiked eyebrows.
Nowhere is the arching more arch than in the second and most pointed of the three playlets, O’Flaherty V.C., in which an Irish WWI hero is sent home from the trenches on a recruiting tour only to find a bigger battle brewing with his mother. She was under the impression he’d gone overseas to fight against the British.
O’Flaherty (Michael Glenn) is first spotted chatting amiably with an English general (Jeff Baker) who was, in peacetime, the lord of a manor from which the O’Flaherty clan blithely poached game. With his Victoria’s Cross for valor (the “V.C.” of the title) offering protection, the lowly soldier feels entirely relaxed about confessing his pre-war transgressions, his antipathy for all things English, and even his doubts about the battle with the Kaiser (“No war is right, and all the holy water ever blessed couldn’t make one right”). But his courage evaporates at the approach of his pint-sized mum (Lynn Steinmetz).
She’s politeness itself while the general’s around, but let the squire leave the room for a moment, and she’ll reduce her son to quivering adolescence with little more than an ear-pinch and a scowl. And when the lad pulls himself together and manages, briefly, to counter her arguments, Shaw brings the general back to counter his countering. Then he throws in a pretty lass (Kathleen Akerley) and has the lad give her a gold chain that mum would love to claim as her own (and that the general figures O’Flaherty must have stolen). In short order, the playwright creates a whole new take on the term “Irish Troubles.”
Shaw being Shaw, mixed in with the emotional blackmail are arguments on filial duty, class conflict, imperial prerogatives, and also a speech that could have been written last week rather than 90 years ago about the dangers of whipped-up nationalism in the aftermath of an attack (“they never thought of being patriotic…and now the patriotism has took them so sudden and come so strange to them, that they run about like frightened chickens, uttering all manner of nonsense”).
The evening’s curtain-raiser, written some two decades earlier when Shaw was still testing the playwriting waters, is considerably slighter. The Man of Destiny means to be a debate on the nature of truth (“the one thing that nobody will believe”) but amounts to little more than a series of sparring matches between a youngish Napoleon (Glenn) and three variously annoying factotums: an obsequious innkeeper (Baker), an arrogant lesser officer (Chris Davenport), and a sultry spy (Akerley)—over a packet of letters gone astray. Some of the sparring is amusing, but staged and acted with a broadness that sometimes verges on slapstick, it quickly wears out its welcome.
The evening’s third playlet, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, on the other hand, is altogether too brief. Penned in 1910 for a fundraiser supporting the founding of the National Theater in London, it sends a randy Will Shakespeare (Davenport) out searching one night for his dark muse and has him instead happen upon a sleepwalking Queen Elizabeth. Shaw, who would, decades later, declare himself a greater playwright than the Bard, depicts young Will as a mere sponge, soaking up (and jotting down for later use) the artful utterances of a palace guard (Baker), the Queen (Steinmetz), and when she finally arrives, his ladylove (Akerley).
They turn out to be a treasure trove of fine phrasing (“Frailty; thy name is woman,” “all the perfumes of Arabia”) that the Bard mucks up. To be fair, he’s also trying to save his skin by romancing the virgin Queen, who’s ever on the verge of having him executed. It’s a trifle but an amusing one.
Apart from that errant bit of slapstick in the opener, WSG’s company is comfortably in its element in Shaw’s Shorts, with John MacDonald’s staging getting things sparklingly right, especially when he’s whipping up a comic froth of argument. And in one instance, he lends sparkle to the calm after the storm, too—when O’Flaherty, his mum, his girl, and the general finally finish a climactic screaming match, and there’s a pause just long enough for the young anti-war soldier to remember the quieter time he’d spent a month or so earlier: “with not a sound but the birds, and the bellow of a cow in the distance, and the shrapnel making little clouds in the heavens, and the shells whistling, and maybe a yell or two when one of us was hit.” O’Flaherty’s eyes glisten, his expression wistful, almost beatific. “And would you believe it, I complained of the noise and wanted to have a peaceful hour at home.”