BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
by Chloe Veltman
Samuel Johnson thought plays were better when read in private. George Bernard Shaw thought plays should always be staged. Although The Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Jerome Kilty's drama Dear Liar is staged, it may as well be read in private. Based on correspondence between the famous vegetarian and playwright George Bernard Shaw and his actress muse, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the play chronicles a clandestine affaire de plume, spanning forty years.
With the swan-necked Marian Seldes as the diva and sparky veteran Donal Donnelly as her grouchy beau, the production promises sharp characterizations and emotional depth. But try as they might, the actors cannot breathe life into this mothballed corpse of a play. Written in 1957, Dear Liar is an early example of epistolary drama. With its dreary narration and lengthy chunks of regurgitated letter-reading, clearly the genre, which has developed in exciting ways since, was still in embryonic state then. One need only look at Vita & Virginia (1992) which spliced together phrases from the correspondence of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf to create powerful conflict through dialogue interpolated from letters to see how far this genre has come.
With its lack of shape, staging Dear Liar would flex any director's imaginative powers. In a drama of relentless monologue, what do you do with one actor while the other is ranting? With its naturalistic setting (a turn-of-century parlor and study minutely designed by David Raphael), the production seems hampered by a drive for archaic realism. Up to their eye-balls in tea-stained papers, both sender and recipient eagerly digest the words in tandem, one speaking aloud as the other tacitly reacts. After two hours of arched eyebrows, pursed lips, puckered foreheads and satisfied smiles, both Seldes and Donnelly fully exhaust the physical possibilities of epistolary intercourse.
Despite these considerable deficits, this production is often funny and endearing. One shining example occurs when Shaw tyrannizes the crumpled Campbell during a rehearsal of Pygmalion, one of his most famous plays. As the actress who first created the role of Eliza Doolittle, Mrs. Patrick Campbell entranced a generation of theatre goers with her portrayal of the schizophrenic Covent Garden flower girl. With ferocious aplomb, Seldes hilariously howls through her lines, clearly hating every cockney syllable Shaw orders her to utter. With a straw hat and pink shawl slung over her fine dress (one of a series of elegant costumes designed by David Toser), she transforms herself efficiently into the gamine, whilst succinctly capturing the middle-aged grande-dame, uncomfortable in the role of a pauper.
Donnelly makes a sharp-toothed albeit decrepit Shaw. Balanced at his lectern, beady-eyed and white-whiskered -- give him a fishing rod, and he'd look like a garden gnome. However, Donnelly is less gnome than fiery Nero, bellowing his opinions in an ardent voice. While Mrs. Patrick Campbell moves about the stage, pendulous earrings swinging in time to her moods, changing dress three times, and aging visibly by forty years, Shaw remains the Quintessence of Immobility.
Although the letters teem with vigor and venom, Charlotte Moore's staging exercises a gulf between two people ultimately unable to connect with one another. Perpetually portrayed in the act of reading, the characters in this production are more engaged with their solitary thoughts than with each other. In a sense, Johnson and those that share his opinions are right: there are indeed some plays that are more interesting to read in private than watch on stage. Perhaps Dear Liar is one of them.
Editor's Note: Donnelly portrayed Shaw previously and on this very stage in My Astonishing Self. That play too focused on an epistolary friendship. It would seem that having two actors on stage, especially with Marian Seldes being the second, that there would be more excitement. However, Donnelly was apparently better served by the monologue than the two-hander. For a review of this earlier play go here. For our background on George Bernard Shaw's career which includes links to plays by and about Shaw which we've reviewed go here