gingold theatrical group

A Tawdry Tenement Tale

For several years David Staller’s Project Shaw has been presenting monthly readings of the plays of George Bernard Shaw, whetting the appetites of fans of the Irish socialist. Widowers’ Houses, written in 1892 and now presented by TACT and Staller’s Gingold Theatrical Group in a full production, is the first of Shaw’s 65 plays, and it is astonishingly topical.

The plot is simple enough. On a Rhineland holiday, young Harry Trench (Jeremy Beck) and his companion Cokane (Jonathan Hadley) encounter bluff, social-climbing businessman Sartorius (Terry Layman), traveling to introduce his daughter, Blanche (Talene Monahon), to continental culture. The playwright’s satiric instincts are almost immediately on display, as Cokane, attempting to show his worldliness, mispronounces words like “distingué” and orders stones in fractured German.

But the humorous jabs at the class-conscious British belie the darker thrust of Shaw’s play. Here the playwright takes on tenement housing, society’s indifference to the poor, and the ruthlessness of businessmen—topics that still sizzle. Trench and Blanche strike romantic sparks, but Sartorius, while favoring their marriage, requires that his daughter, raised middle-class, will be accepted into the aristocracy: Trench is a doctor with limited income, but his family includes nobility. Sartorius has oodles of money, and essentially means to buy his daughter’s entry into the upper class.

Shaw introduces strong class friction to the business, exposing Sartorius as ruthlessly oppressing the poor. Reviewing the books on his real estate holdings, he discharges his toadying overseer, Lickcheese (a crestfallen John Plumpis), because he has bought wood to fix a dangerous staircase in a tenement.

The plot takes a darker turn when Trench, having rejected financial support from his prospective father-in-law, finds himself entangled in the very oppression of the poor for which he disdains Sartorius. In 1892, critics attacked Shaw’s portrayal of the businessman, and Shaw responded in a letter to The Star: “They denounce Sartorius … as a monstrous libel on the middle and upper classes because he grinds his money remorselessly out of the poor. But they do not (and cannot) answer his argument as to the impossibility of his acting otherwise under our social system.” Shaw’s assessment is still so clear-headed that it will make audiences think hard, if not squirm.

Under Staller’s direction, the actors do splendidly. The youthful Beck is by turns romantically besotted, appalled at the social implications of his alliance with Blanche, and helplessly trapped by Darwinian capitalism—and he delivers some pratfalls as well.

Shaw is not above borrowing the high style of his countryman Oscar Wilde, either; a scene of serving tea is played by Beck and Monahon with a casual archness, as if they were in The Importance of Being Earnest.

“Sugar, Dr. Trench?” asks Blanche, serving.
“Yes, please.”
“One or two?” she asks.
“I rely upon your better judgment,” says Trench.
“Quite right.”

For her part, Monahon starts as the cool object of Trench’s affection and slowly reveals herself as a “nasty little shrew,” as Max Beerbohm called her in a 1909 review. There’s a moment early on when, following Sartorius’s discussion about Trench’s marriage to his daughter, Blanche enters and seems to give a con man’s nod to her father; they have both fixed on Trench, it’s clear, and, if Blanche is unaware of the tenement incomes, she is in league with her father to marry well.

There are hints, too, that Cokane is a closeted homosexual. Apart from the flamboyance with which Hadley invests the character, there’s a telling moment when Trench, seeking Cokane’s help in writing a letter, curls his lip and pouts flirtatiously with his friend—a savvy heterosexual using his appeal to wheedle his gay chum for a favor.

Here and there Staller gives a textual boost to Shaw—an early joke depends on knowing a period brand of water that Staller clarifies. Later he substitutes a generic reference for “the North Thames Iced Mutton” company; the latter surely plays more comically in Britain than here. It’s symptomatic of the care Staller has invested, although the climactic moment seems the director’s own. Trench, having acquiesced to a business deal proposed by a newly thriving and conniving Lickcheese, is suddenly lighted garishly by Peter West as he hears snatches of dialogue from earlier in the play. He’s like a fly caught in a spider’s web. It’s a more overtly cynical note than in Shaw’s original, but the playwright might still have approved.

TACT and Gingold's Theatrical production of Widowers’ Houses plays through April 2 at the Beckett Theater in Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd St. off Ninth Avenue. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $63.25 and may be purchased by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6262 or visiting

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Blessed Assurance (or Lack Thereof)

George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara challenges Percy Bysshe Shelley’s assertion that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." So long as governments co-exist uneasily and individuals are unable to live in harmony with those sharing the planet, suggests Shaw in his 1905 play, munitions-makers will rule the global roost.

Major Barbara, currently revived at The Pearl Theatre Company, didn't arrive on Broadway until 1915, by which time World War I was well underway in Europe. The play begins as high comedy, shifts disconcertingly to naturalism in Act Two, and concludes with a fantastical debate in which the title character (Hannah Cabell), a Salvation Army officer, and her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins (Richard Gallagher), undergo changes of heart that strain credibility to a greater extent than usual in Shaw's work. Despite its structural flaws, Major Barbara is a perpetual crowd-pleaser; this comedy-drama and its heroine may be second only to Pygmalion and its principals, Liza and Professor Higgins, as Shaw's audience favorites. 

When the last prominent New York revival of Major Barbara opened (with Cherry Jones in the lead), the towers of the original World Trade Center still drew the eye to lower Manhattan; and Americans were enjoying the benefits of an extended era of peaceful (or relatively peaceful) relations abroad. Six days before the play’s scheduled closing, the Trade Center was attacked by air and both towers were destroyed. That tragedy moved the U.S. President to declare a Global War on Terror and to sign, two days after the play's closing, the Authorization for Use of Military Force. The years since have been marked by American combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, as well as fluctuating economic conditions, with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Shaw's concerns about poverty, privilege, war, and religion seem more urgent now than they did in the summer of 2001.

As always at the Pearl, an array of accomplished actors is on view. Dan Daily gives the evening’s most notable performance as Barbara's father, the fiendishly clever Andrew Undershaft, an armaments kingpin who believes poverty to be the world's most heinous crime. Undershaft riffs on the Republic: “Plato says … that society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gunpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek.” Daily is well-matched by Gallagher as the geeky Greek tutor who, against all odds, becomes Undershaft's heir both in the family and on the world's political stage.

Major Barbara is directed by David Staller, founding artistic director of the Gingold Theatrical Group which is co-producing with the Pearl. The stylish production is designed by James Noone (scenery), Tracy Christensen (costumes), Michael Gottlieb (lighting), and M. Florian Staab (sound). Six of the nine actors handle two roles (or, in one case, three), moving effectively up and down the social ladder. In a program note, Staller explains this doubling as inspired by a remark of Shaw’s that, “but for an accident of birth,” characters such as the aristocratic Lady Britomart and the middle-middle-class Mrs. Baines, the Salvation Army Commissioner (both played by Carol Schultz), or the prim, high-born Stephen Undershaft and the unemployed lout Snobby Price (played by Alec Shaw), “might have become one or the other.” Christensen’s resourceful costume designs aid the actors in shifting swiftly from one social stratum to another in plain view of the audience. It’s a dash of Brecht in an evening of Shaw.

The great Irish dramatist named his play for Barbara but, as he revised it, her father emerged as the most forceful of the dramatis personae. In the wrong hands, Undershaft can overwhelm the other characters (especially in the last scenes). Daily tempers his performance, a model of actorly restraint, so as to recalibrate the lopsided exuberance of Shaw's text and ensure balance among Undershaft, Adolphus, and Barbara in their memorable but tricky last-act trio.

Shaw called the conclusion of Major Barbara “terrible” and lamented that, despite a quarter century of post-premiere tinkering, he couldn't eliminate the flaws. In the 2001 revival, the principal actors made the final scene convincing with the emotional force of their performances. Under Staller's supervision, the Pearl's cast does justice to the wit of Major Barbara but seldom conveys the raw feeling that ought to animate the brainy talk. Without that, there's no accepting the conviction of Barbara and Adolphus that they can save the world by forsaking charity and classical learning for the armaments industry.

Major Barbara is playing through December 14 at the Pearl Theatre Co. (555 West 42nd St.). Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m.; and Thursday–Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65 for regular admission; $39 for seniors; and $20 for students and rush Thursday. For tickets, please visit or by call 212-563-9261.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post