Major Barbara - American Airlines Theatre - September 8, 2001

George Bernard Shaw is a very wordy playwright, both in his dialogue and his stage directions. In fact, I'm not sure I've read many of his plays where there was more dialogue than stage direction! Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but if there's a modern playwright more enamoured with the English language than Shaw, I'm afraid I have yet to encounter him.

Major Barbara is an unquestionably Shavian play. Who else could have written it? Who else would have wanted to? It presents a fascinating mix of social and religious issues, while still providing a good time for the audience. It's a remarkably thoughtful and entertaining play, exactly what we should expect from Shaw. Beyond that, though, it has a beautiful sense of balance. The story, dealing with a munitions manufacturer and his Salvation Army daughter, could easily get away from lesser playwrights. But Shaw doesn't let the subject matter get out of his way, and he is very careful to present both sides of the play's central argument. A lesser production might water down some of these elements (it would be easier, after all), but the new Broadway production, alas, about to close, wonderfully captures every element.

I would be hard-pressed to identify a single significant misstep. I had some minor qualms with the casting of some of the minor roles--David Lansbury, is his small but pivotal role as Bill Walker, did little for me--but on the whole, the production really is quite remarkable. Cherry Jones elegantly underplays Barbara, and the chemistry (non-romantic, mind you) between her and David Warner's Andrew Undershaft is palpable. Dana Ivey was, I thought, hilarious as Barbara's mother, Britomart (not "Biddy," she would hasten to remind us), Zak Orth was able to get at the root of Stephen's troubles, and Denis O'Hare did a lot for Adolphus as well (especially in the final scene).

Daniel Sullivan's direction was quite strong throughout, though I felt the pace lagged a bit, particularly in the second and third scenes. Perhaps that's understandable and unavoidable--you can't take Shaw too quickly, lest you invite theatrical indigestion. John Lee Beatty's sets were creative and beautiful, even during the changes, and Jane Greenwood's costumes matched Sullivan and Beatty every step of the way.

I feel fortunate to have seen this production of Major Barbara, as I'm not sure when I'll see another, regardless of the level of quality. This play, like all Shaw, though, is not really for the faint of heart, or those who have little patience for lengthy speeches or high British humor.

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