Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.


Bernard Shaw’s Candida at the Shaw Festival

(May 14, 2011) We think we’ve seen a different, more robust approach to the Shaw plays offered at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) over the last decade. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy the Shaw plays we saw there during the 1990s – but they seemed to draw a little too deeply from a performing tradition of British constraint, formality, and artifice that kept Shaw’s natural vigor from coming through. We’ve had the same sense watching videos of buttoned-down BBC productions of Shaw plays filmed in the early 1970s.

Candida's father Burgess (Norman Browning) bullies Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Doesn't this photo (courtesy of the Shaw Festival) remind you of an illustration out of a novel by Dickens or Thackeray?

In recent seasons the Shaw plays have seemed livelier, fresher, and more spontaneous, and the characters have seemed decidedly more human. The result has been that in many seasons the must-see show at the Shaw Festival has, in fact, been a Shaw play (like last year’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, 2008’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 2006’s Arms and the Man, and 2004’s Man and Superman), as is befitting. We can only speculate that a new generation of directors at the Shaw Festival gets the point that Shaw intended his characters to portray real flesh-and-blood men and women, not drawing-room caricatures.

Despite this salutary trend, this year’s Candida, which we saw last weekend, seemed to us a bit of a throwback to the older approach. We can’t help thinking that the production missed director Gina Wilkinson, who was originally announced as director of Candida but who sadly passed away in December 2010.

But Candida is still one of Shaw’s most entertaining comedies, and this show has some delightful comic acting, including a warm, nuanced performance from Claire Jullien as Candida. We especially enjoyed Krista Colosimo as Miss Proserpine, the old-maid secretary with a crush on her boss, a character that Ms. Colosimo artfully portrays as neither ridiculous or pitiable. And we were impressed with Wade Bogert-O’Brien (a lively and appealing Eugene Marchbanks), a young actor who seems to take to Shaw like a duck to water. The scenes move briskly along; for a Shaw play, this one’s relatively short.

Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) hectors Candida's husband Morrell (Nigel Shawn Williams)

The Shaw Festival’s advertising of Candida has, we think, been a little misleading.  There’s no bona fide love triangle at all. Candida is not truly torn between her busy-as-a-bee do-gooder parson husband and the adoring young romantic who appreciates her true worth – and we were relieved to see that Ms. Jullien, as Candida, didn’t try to play it that way. Marchbanks, young and naïve, may have thought he was making a serious run for Candida’s affections; no doubt Morrell himself had a crisis of marital insecurity. But Candida herself never wavered from our commitment to her husband, despite his flaws; this is a love story.

Candida (Clair Juillien) was never really tempted to leave her husband (Nigel Shawn Williams)

The most notable thing about this year’s Candida is that a black actor, Nigel Shawn Williams, has been cast as Morrell.  Wholly apart from Mr. Williams’s performance, which seemed to us respectable though not notable, we are not enthusiastic about this gesture in color-blind casting.

In this post a couple of years ago, we took exception to a public campaign to pressure the Shaw Festival to become more “diverse.”  (Of course, diversity flacks never mean real diversity at all, but only diversity in skin color, which is the least interesting and most meaningless of human differences.) We kept hearing the mantra that Ontario’s theaters should be “as diverse as Canada itself.”

But so what if southern Ontario (and western New York) are racially and ethnically diverse? The world of Bernard Shaw wasn’t!  And in his plays Shaw showed little or no interest in racial differences.  (Are there any characters of color in Shaw besides the Egyptian doctor in The Millionairess?) Shaw’s genius lay instead in sketching the genteel classes, the upstart capitalist classes, the varieties of socialists (Morrell’s Christian socialism, for example, as contrasted with Shaw’s secular socialism), the working classes, and the idle educated classes.

We might well be asked whether theatergoers shouldn’t simply teach themselves to ignore skin color, even in Shaw plays.  It’s a fair question, because going to the theater requires one to suppose a lot of things that aren’t so.  We’re able to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that a wooden stage is really the parlor of a radical London clergyman, or that people we’re seen walking the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake are really Londoners named Candida, Lexy, and Miss Proserpine. It’s all part of watching a play.

But the stage is one of the few arenas of life where appearance does matter.  We rightly expect, for instance, that stage actors will be age-appropriate and gender-appropriate for their parts.  Candida, however, is set in London at the end of the 19th century, a time and place when a marriage between a white woman and a black vicar would have been unthinkable.

Thus, when a black man is cast as Morrell and a white woman is cast as Morrell’s wife, we must not only imagine that the actor is a socialist vicar in a lower-class London parish, but must imagine as well that the black actor is actually white.  Casting a black man as Morrell (or casting a black woman as Candida), with an otherwise white cast, lays an additional, unnecessary demand on an audience.

We pride ourselves on our imaginative powers and our mental flexibility, and we don’t want to suggest that this experiment in color-blind casting at the Shaw Festival kept us from enjoying the play or from appreciating Mr. Williams’s performance. But we are unconvinced that the experiment was a good idea. We would have rather seen an all-black cast, which would have avoided the issue altogether. The Shaw Festival’s ensemble doesn’t have many black actors, but Candida has only six characters.  It could have been done.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2011 season

A year ago we were wondering whether the Shaw Festival management might be chafing a little at having to build its seasons around the plays of Bernard Shaw. The 2009 season was all about Noël Coward, and the Festival’s marketing for 2010 certainly didn’t lead with the two Shaw plays that were on the bill. In fact, the first Shaw play of 2010 didn’t even open until the end of June.


But if the Shaw Festival is thinking about putting Shaw on the backburner, it’s not happening in 2011, because for its 50th season there will be an unprecedented four Shaw plays at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Personally, we’re not tired of Shaw yet. Here’s what we think of the 2011 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. The Admirable Crichton (James M. Barrie). Several months ago, when we offered a few suggestions for future Shaw Festival seasons (see this post), a play by J. M. Barrie was high on the list. It wasn’t The Admirable Crichton, but we’ll settle for this inventive comedy, which we’ve read but never seen (the Shaw Festival put it on back 1976, when Emsworth was still a student, unaware of theater festivals in Ontario).

J M Barrie

James M. Barrie

Like several Shaw plays (including Candida, also on the 2011 playbill), The Admirable Crichton involves the clumsy efforts of “advanced” English folk to live up to their socialist ideals. In this play, the Earl of Loam makes it a monthly practice to hold a dinner in which his household’s servants are treated like equals. The idealistic earl explains to Crichton, the butler: “Can’t you see, Crichton, that our divisions into classes are artificial, that if we were to return to Nature, which is the aspiration of my life, all would be equal?” Crichton, a clear-sighted conservative, does not agree: “The divisions into classes, my lord, are not artificial. They are the natural outcomes of a civilised society.”

Fantasies become reality in many of Barrie’s plays.  In The Admirable Crichton, the Earl’s household, servants and all, take a long voyage together and find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted Pacific island, where the Earl’s egalitarian theories are put to the test. In Bernard Shaw’s My Fair Lady (also on the 2011 playbill), a poor flower girl is taken out of her station life and transformed into a jewel of society; in Barrie’s play a butler is changed into a master, and a lord finds a station in life fitting his own natural ability.  Stephen Sutcliffe will play the butler, Crichton, and David Schurman will be the Earl of Loam.

2. My Fair Lady (Bernard Shaw, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe). We can’t imagine why they’ve never put on My Fair Lady at Niagara-on-the-Lake till now. Sure, it’s just an “adaptation” of Shaw’s play Pygmalion, but it uses a high percentage of Shaw’s original lines and sticks to the story. There was no good reason for the Shaw Festival to snub My Fair Lady for 49 years.

P. G. Wodehouse must have been suffering from indigestion, or gout, or kidney stones when he saw this show in the 1950s and told a friend it was “the dullest lousiest show” he’d ever seen.  This is our favorite musical play, if Showboat isn’t. We love its songs and have sung and played them all our life: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church On Time.” Deborah Hay, who so successfully played another girl from the slums a couple of years ago in Born Yesterday, will play Eliza Doolittle.  We particularly look forward to Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins.  Little round man Neil Barclay, who is in fact an excellent song-and-dance man, will be Alfred Doolittle.

3. Candida (Bernard Shaw). This never-tedious comedy is among our favorite Shaw plays. Candida is the wife of James Morelle, a vicar and popular socialist speaker who serves a run-down parish in London. In the fundamentalist circles of Emsworth’s younger years, one sometimes heard of preachers who were “so heavenly minded” that they were “of no earthly good.” Morelle is the liberal analogue, so zealous for his causes that he doesn’t pay enough attention to the living, breathing people in his own circle, especially his wife. We give the radical socialist Shaw credit for being able to satirize someone like Morelle, a soldier on the front lines of the socialist campaign.

The plot of Candida revolves around the infatuation of young Eugene Marchbanks for Candida, who is 15 years his senior. In other productions of Candida that we’ve seen, Candida is portrayed as genuinely wavering between the young poet and her husband. This has never seemed right to us; we don’t think Candida ever seriously considers leaving James for the boy, and we don’t think the dramatic interest of the play requires it.

Gina Wilkinson was originally scheduled to direct Candida; sadly, she passed away in December 2010. Claire Jullien will play Candida.

4. Drama at Inish (Lennox Robinson). Several years ago we got a charge out of the Shaw Festival’s production of Seán O’Casey’s 1926 play The Plough and the Stars, even though we had trouble understanding the heavy Irish accents. Irish drama was something new for us, and we liked it.

We’ve been expecting more O’Casey but instead, in 2011, we’ll be getting a 1933 drama called Drama at Inish from one of O’Casey’s Irish contemporaries, Lennox Robinson. We dug around and found a copy of this comedy on-line and were greatly entertained by our reading of it. Jackie Maxwell herself, who we think is the best director at the Shaw Festival, will be directing. Two of our favorite Shaw Festival actresses, Mary Haney and Corrine Koslo, will have leading roles.

This is a play about actors and their audiences. Perhaps you remember a story — it might have been Mark Twain, maybe Bret Harte — in which some cowboys seeing their first play didn’t understand that the drama on stage wasn’t real, so they pulled out their pistols to shoot the stage villain. Drama at Inish similarly pokes fun at small-town theater-goers who confuse the real world and the gloomy on-stage worlds of Ibsen and Chekhov. (When this play initially came to Broadway, it was called “Is Life Worth Living.”)  

5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams). This 1955 play is high on our list of all-time favorite plays. It will be only the second Tennessee Williams play to appear at the Shaw Festival (we enjoyed Summer and Smoke in 2007) and hope A Streetcar Named Desire won’t be far behind. We note, in passing, that, 10 years ago, before they relaxed “the Mandate,” the Shaw Festival probably wouldn’t have offered a play written after Shaw’s death in 1950.

This is the story of Brick and Maggie, a young couple whose childlessness is a sore point with Brick’s father, Big Daddy, a wealthy, domineering Southern planter who is dying of cancer. Maggie’s childless condition is due mainly to Brick’s puzzling lack of interest in his wife; does Brick simply despise her, or is he (like Tennessee Williams himself) simply not attracted to women?

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is full of delicious, unforgettable scenes and characters.  Moya O’Connell will play Maggie the Cat; Jim Mezon will play Big Daddy.  It seems that this will be Mr. Mezon’s only major role at the Shaw Festival in 2011; we’re a little disappointed that in the Festival’s 50th year, he’s not playing a lead role in a Bernard Shaw play. 

6. The President (Ferenc Molnár). This one-act comedy, starring Lorne Kennedy, was such a success as the one-hour lunchtime show at the Shaw Festival in 2008 that they’re bringing it back. We meant to see it then, but it never worked out, so we’re glad for this second chance.  This play too involves a “make-over”; a cabdriver with communist leanings must become someone suitable as the husband for the daughter of a soybean tycoon. Presumably most of the same cast will be back, although Chilina Kennedy, who played the daughter in 2008, is now a leading lady at the Stratford Festival. At $32, it’s a bargain.

The plot of The President, originally written in Hungarian in 1929, is thoroughly Wodehousian, and in fact there’s a connection: P. G. Wodehouse adapted one of Ferenc Molnár’s plays into the 1926-27 Broadway smash The Play’s the Thing, which we intend to re-read before heading off to see The President.

7. Topdog/Underdog (Suzan-Lori Parks). This 2001 play by Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer. It’s about two brothers (black men, but they actually are brothers) and their struggles to get by. They’re the only two characters in the play, which will play for only a short run (from July 19 through August 27) in the Shaw Festival’s new Studio Theater, which they reserve for “contemporary” plays. The Shaw’s track record in this space (John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 2009, Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money in 2010) is very good.

8. Heartbreak House (George Bernard Shaw). It’s one of Shaw’s greatest plays, according to all the experts, and who are we to argue? It includes some of our favorite Shaw characters, like old Captain Shotover, who treats his country house as if it were a sailing ship and pretends to be more senile than he really is. We consider the Captain a role model for our own declining years and are delighted to see that Michael Ball will take the role.  In fact, this show will have the Shaw Festival’s “A” case, with Robin Evan Willis, Deborah Hay, Patrick Galligan, and Patrick McManus as key cast members.

The first half of Heartbreak House, written during the first World War, is witty and entertaining; the second half turns deadly serious, and it’s all intensely metaphorical. In fact, we would go so far as to suggest that Shaw’s reputation for being “talky” owes more to Heartbreak House than to any other of his plays. Toward the end, the characters simply sit around the terrace engaged in intellectual duels that make you, in the audience, feel stupid because you didn’t understand someone’s winning thrust.

9. Maria Severa (Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli) Ever longer grows the list of recent Broadway musicals (like Spring Awaking, Billy Elliott, and In the Heights) that we have not seen and, frankly, don’t feel the urge to see. So will we make it a priority to see this brand-new musical by two talented members of the Shaw Festival company (Jay Turvey and Jay Sportelli)?

The play is about Maria Severa, a historical character who, in her short life (1820-1846), became a legendary Portugese singer of fado songs.  Julie Martell, who is both easy on the eyes and an excellent singer, will play the title role.

10. When the Rain Stops Falling (Andrew Bovell). We don’t know about this one. Here’s what Ben Brantley said in a review of a London production of this Australian play in the New York Times last summer:

The play begins with people hidden by umbrellas walking in circles under sheets of water, until a man in the center of the stage is compelled to scream a scream of human angst. Then a fish falls into his arms.

11. On the Rocks (George Bernard Shaw). Besides three of Shaw’s best-known plays, the 2010 season will include one of his least-known — or, at least, an adaptation of it. We were altogether unfamiliar with this late (1933) Shaw play till we saw it was going to be offered in 2011, so we read it.  We can now explain (a) why, in 50 years, this is only the second time the Shaw Festival has put on On the Rocks and (b) why it needed to be “adapted”.

Interviewed at the age of 92, P. G. Wodehouse stated, “I don’t want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn’t stop writing.”  Shaw may not have been in his nineties when he wrote On the Rocks, but it’s the sort of thing Wodehouse was talking about.  As Shaw wrote it, On the Rocks is a tedious play about a conservative English prime minister and his cabinet who, in a time of national crisis that has brought the nation close to anarchy, suddenly “realize” that various collectivist measures are what is needed to save the country. It’s the equivalent of a radical socialist’s wet dream. The characters, on the page anyway, are wooden and featureless. No doubt the adaptation, by Michael Healey, will be more interesting than if we were given Shaw’s play straight, but we’re not attracted.

Ways of the Heart at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Patrick McManus

Patrick McManus was superb in Family Affair and even better in Ways and Means

Some folks saw all four of the Noël Coward shows at the Shaw Festival in a single day.  We spread Tonight at 8:30 out over two and half months, which gave us time to think (and blog) about what we’d seen. Now we’re done, having caught Ways of the Heart in the Courthouse Theater last Sunday evening.  These three one-acts may not be the best of the series, but they’re still indispensable.

But first, a protest against what we had to go through just to get into Canada in the first place. We left Rochester in plenty of time to reach Niagara-on-the-Lake by 6:00 or so and have dinner at the Epicurean before the 8:00 p.m. show. But cars were lined up at the Lewiston/Queenston border crossing for two miles, and we had to sit in line for the better part of two hours (our time with the customs inspector took all of 30 seconds). And what about the environment?  Our car’s computer said that we wasted nearly a gallon of gas idling in line; the SUVs all around us must have burned even more. We got to our show, without dinner, with only minutes to spare.

We saw recently that the Canadian government gave the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival several million dollars to promote tourism. Don’t they realize that nothing discourages spontaneous visits to Ontario more than the tedious, unpredictable delays at the border? Why didn’t they put a little extra “tourism” money into adding more booths at the border crossing and hiring more inspectors? We bet tourism would pick up by 100 percent if the province of Ontario could advertise that there’d never be more than a five minute wait at the border.

Back to the show: Ways of the Heart is at the Courthouse Theatre, where there’s a radically different dynamic between actors and audience. When you’re witnessing painful marital scenes like those in The Astonished Heart (the first and longest of the three plays in this show) from a vantage point eight feet away from the actors, you feel like a voyeur.

The Astonished Heart is one of two plays in Tonight at 8:30 that gives an embryo-to-grave sketch of an illicit romance. The first, in the Shaw Festival show titled Brief Encounters, was Still Life (see this post), in which an affair starts innocently; the lovers attract the audience’s sympathy because of their fundamental decency.

Claire Jullien

Claire Jullien

The lovers in The Astonished Heart are of a different sort. Here the affair starts when a jaded woman on the prowl, Leonora Vail (Claire Jullien), deliberately sets out to seduce an old school friend’s husband. Her target, Chris Faber (David Jansen), is a tightly wound, self-satisfied psychiatrist who turns out to be spectacularly ill-equipped for a relationship that he can’t control.  (Still Life involves an affair with a doctor, too.)  There’s no tenderness in their love affair, nor do we have much sympathy for the injured wife, Barbara (Laurie Paton), who faces the collapse of her marriage with almost pathological coolness.

Laurie Paton

We especially loved Laurie Paton as Lavinia Featherways in Family Affair

After intermission comes Family Affair, an intensely entertaining, offbeat satire of the way people behave when they’re not really sorry someone has died. The ten members of the Featherways family stand around their drawing room in extravagantly gothic mourning clothes (the play is set in the mid-1800s; the scene lacks only a raven) doing their best to mourn the passing of their father, whose Victorian portrait hangs over the mantle.

Michael Ball

We hope the Shaw Festival has bigger roles for Michael Ball in 2010

But they can keep up their long faces only so long.  One after the other, the Featherways admit to themselves and to each other that the old man was a dissolute skinflint and that his death came as a relief. Patrick McManus and Laurie Paton are in rare form as Jasper and Lavinia Featherways, but Michael Ball (still our favorite Shaw Festival actor) steals the show as Burrows, the Featherways’ decrepit, conveniently deaf butler.

David Jansen

David Jansen

The final play, Ways and Means, was, we must say, the weakest of the ten one-act plays we saw, even though its setting and plot are straight out of P. G. Wodehouse. The main problem, we thought, is that David Jansen plays what is supposed to be a comic role with the same sour, joyless affect that he used in The Astonished Heart earlier in the show. It’s also the way he’s currently playing the alcoholic James Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten (see our review) and the way he played the shattered Horace Gibbens last year in The Little Foxes (see our review).  One approach doesn’t fit all.

Ways and Means takes place in a guest bedroom at the French Riviera estate of Olive Lloyd-Ransome (Lisa Codrington), where socialites Toby and Stella Cartwright (Jansen and Claire Jullien again) have overstayed their welcome. The Cartwrights live by their charm and wits, but now they’re broke; they’ve lost what little money they had at the casino and at the bridge table and don’t even have enough to leave town.

They brainstorm for ways to raise money: Have Stella’s maid hock a necklace?  Corral someone who owes them money? Borrow from their hostess? A solution comes in the middle of the night when an ex-valet-turned-burglar, Stevens (Patrick McManus again), invades their bedroom.

At our performance, the opening scenes between Stella and Toby got no audience reaction.  Was this due, we wondered, to 75- year-old material that no longer packs any comic punches?  Unemployed social parasites like the Cartwrights were natural objects of ridicule in the twenties and thirties (Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones are the classic examples), but they’re not a familiar species anymore. At one point Stella says to Toby, “It seems a pity that you can’t turn your devastating wit to a more commercial advantage — you should write a gossip column.”  Toby responds, “I haven’t got a title.”  This must have been a surefire laugh line in 1935 when destitute dukes and duchesses wrote gossip columns for the London papers. But nobody laughed last Sunday evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But even more of a problem than dated material, we thought, was David Jansen’s inability to deliver comic lines with comic effect. Moments after Patrick McManus came on stage as the burglar Stevens, the play came to life and our audience suddenly realized that Ways and Means was a comedy, not a drama. Did Coward’s play abruptly change its mood with Stevens’s entrance (to some extent it did, we think, though we hesitate to suggest that Coward wrote anything with a flaw), or did McManus bring comic skills that Jansen lacks? We would have liked to have seen Blair Williams, a talented comic actor who was director of this show, playing Jansen’s roles.

August 18, 2009: We see that the New York Times has noticed that the Shaw is doing  Tonight at 8:30 (see this post), although the writer mostly talks about the history of these one-act plays and doesn’t say much about these performances.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)