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A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
One of several remarkable things about this new Broadway production is that director Daniel Sullivan, having cast Cherry Jones, one of our finest actresses, in the title role, asks her not to glitter, as she easily can, but to spend most of her time "thinking". It's an inspired choice.
Barbara Undershaft is not an impetuous woman, yet her actions could suggest the contrary. As the play opens, she has rejected the material comforts of her class to become a staunch standardbearer in the Salvation Army. But when the Army furthers its mission by taking money from a whiskey distiller and then from her father, Andrew (David Warner), a merchant of "death and destruction," she sheds her rank and her uniform, unable to stomach the hypocrisy. By play's end, however, she's had another conversion, supporting her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins (Denis O'Hare), in his decision to take over the family arms business. She will henceforth save people from within the establishment fortifications.
Like her father, Barbara is not a blind follower, but a thoughtful architect of her own morality. ("There is only one true morality for every man;" Andrew says (forgive the Victorian sexism), "but every man has not the same true morality.") She is, so to speak, a chip off the old block, even if she's been catapulted quite some distance from the "Prince of Darkness".
The paths of both father and daughter are littered with paradoxes. Paradox is, of course, one of Shaw's pervasive idioms. How else to explain how Andrew, a man with a abiding faith in capitalism, can become a socialist playwright's hero?
So we have Sullivan's contemplative Barbara, pensive but for her radiant, spiritual joviality, and her father, resolute and unabashedly honest in his impeccably formulated beliefs: his religion, "millionaire"; his road to salvation, "money and gunpowder". In Warner's hands, he is suave, glib and self-assured: a man who has never listened to the beat of any drum other than the one marking time in his head. Adolphus, a Greek scholar who beats the Salvation Army drum, doesn't do so out of belief but rather because he knows what he wants: Barbara. Andrew gives him a decision he has to make on his own, and he makes the right one: he gets the girl. Along the way, he gets us too. He is a most engaging Adolphus, quirky but sagacious
While Sullivan may envision a quiet Barbara, he has less inhibited intentions for her mother. Lady Britomart has strong opinions too, even if they are derived from instinct rather than reason, and Dana Ivey is allowed to articulate them in the spotlight. She is this play's "comedy central," and she never misses a beat. Her pompous tongue is as sharp as Andrew's most potent weapon, and few are off-limits, though here too we find a paradox. Shaw has reserved her most lacerating remarks for Charles Lomax (Rick Holmes), daughter Sarah's (Henny Russell) intended, but with her own husband, she is curiously circumspect. She doesn't quite know what to make of Barbara's Adolphus. Ivey, positively regal in bearing, is delicious regardless and throughout.
The weak link in this staging is at the top of its second scene (in which the focus shifts to the yard of a Salvation Army shelter where we meet several of its denizens). Sullivan seems strangely out of focus here, as if he's not quite sure of its point. Not surprisingly, then, it makes little impression and it's not soon enough that attention turns again to the Undershaft kin, where things are on much stronger footing.
The impressiveness of John Lee Beatty's set design, ironically, comes to its greatest glory at this scene. Having designed a picture-perfect, gilt-edged but burnished drawing room for the first scene, he elegantly lets it pirouette into the gray lugubriousness of the Salvation Army venue. He'll perform a similar shift again in Act 2, when the Undershaft home gives way to the harsh metals of Andrew's beloved cannon factory. Jane Greenwood's costumes are also exceptionally fine. She gives Britomart a dress to wear that practically speaks her lines and provides Barbara a hat for her return to civilian clothes that's as attractive as any I've seen anywhere, on anyone.
We are fast upon the 100th anniversary of this play (it's dated 1905), so it's worth pausing for a bit of reflection. The intervening years have seen the onslaught of Brecht's parables, followed by the work of a host of British playwrights (Barker, Bond, Brenton and Hare, to name a few), all of whom had capitalism in their sights. All have been harsher; none have made us think more. As we wrestle with the notion of "compassionate conservatism," an idea Andrew Undershaft could have manufactured as easily as his aerial battleship, it's a shame we don't have Shaw to help us think.
Another Major Barbara review in NY
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CurtainUp's G. B. Shaw Playwright's Album