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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
When Shaw was a theater critic, director David Staller explains in his program notes, he often expressed a desire for plays to tackle modern day social and political issues. Finally, his friend William Archer dared him to step up to his own challenge. A collaboration between the two was short-lived. Archer envisioned a more journalistic project, while Shaw moved to employ a satirical style that would become a hallmark of his.
Such context is interesting, but it's also something of a justification for shortcomings in the work that are difficult to minimize, some adaptive intervention by Staller notwithstanding. Widowers' Houses, first performed in 1892, is recognizably a first play, lacking the more graceful entwining of socio-politics and drama that characterizes later works such as Major Barbara in 1905. As a budding playwright, Shaw wields the sword of satire awkwardly; you can tell he has potential, but hasn't yet mastered his abilities.
Certainly, there's something deeply striking and disarming about the issues raised in the play, which are as relevant in modern-day New York as they were in 1890s London. The young Dr. Harry Trench (Jeremy Beck) wishes to marry Blanche Sartorius (Talene Monahon) until he discovers that her self-made father (Terry Layman) is a slumlord who squeezes rent from his poor tenants in exchange for squalid housing arrangements. Trench finds the elder Sartorious's actions worthy of condemnation, but he may be more complicit in this social ill than he thinks. And how much will anyone's moral standards stand up when there's even more money to be made?
The play ends up unable to accommodate both the wild ups and downs of Trench and Blanche's relationship as well as the far more procedural drama of the real estate market. After the first two acts create far more interest in the former, the latter dominates the final act, sapping the emotional intensity of the play as a whole. The topical subject matter draws us in, but it can only take us so far.
Blanche's character poses an interesting conundrum. In some ways, she is admirable for her autonomy and resolve, but she also often seems immature, shallow, and bratty. The character feels like a bundle of contradictions. When she remarks to Trench that she shouldn't be treated like a child, it's unclear if we in the audience are intended to find this a humorous lack of self-awareness or not.
It's the elder Sartorius who feels most fully realized here—somewhat a reflection on the play itself and also on Layman's strong performance. The character is a complex one, with his philosophy and actions serving as provocative elucidations of the play's moral message. We want to admire how he has bootstrapped his family up the social ladder, but we must also realize at whose expense he has done so. His justifications for his actions can sound reasonable enough, yet this makes them acutely unsettling.
The ensemble, rounded out with John Plumpis as Sartorius's employee Lickcheese and Hanna Cheek in a couple of service roles, does solid work; Cheek's attentive supporting work in her minor roles deserves to be noted.
But despite proficiency from the performers and the creative team, and despite its topicality, Widowers' Houses fails to captivate. It may be an important piece in understanding Shaw's career as a dramatist, but the play itself is unlikely to win over audiences thanks to its excessive focus on real estate transactions.
As for class anxiety and income inequality, Charles Isherwood recently offered a discussion in the New York Times of the many new plays dealing with precisely these sorts of issues. The content of these shows may differ significantly, but since they all tap into the same contemporary anxieties, then it seems unlikely that Widowers' Houses can find much of a home here.
Editor's Note: For more about George Bernard Shaw and links to other Shaw plays we've reviewed, including productions of Widowers'Houses, check out our GBS Backgrounder