Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 8, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Major Barbara’

"Hatred is the coward’s revenge for being intimidated."

— Barbara Undershaft, in "Major Barbara."

Having a reputation as a reputable drama critic

wouldn’t

necessarily indicate a talent for playwriting. But in the case of

Irish-born George Bernard Shaw, writing plays proved to be the most

effective of forums for a man of many opinions, ranging from politics,

economics, society, and religion to the eternally confounding

relationship

between men and women. If witty rhetoric characterized his most

successful

plays, including "Pygmalion" (his most popular),

"Heartbreak

House," (his masterpiece) and "Man and Superman," (his

densest and most philosophical), it was never more enthusiastically

exercised than in "Major Barbara."

The new production of "Major Barbara," now at the Roundabout

Theater, leaves little doubt that we are being preached to by a master

dramatist and sermonizer. The affectionately moralizing play, however,

is enhanced by a spiffy staging devised by Daniel Sullivan, the

excellent

director of the current hits "Proof" and "Dinner With

Friends." Without losing what is evidently a respectful reverence

for the occasionally tongue-twisting and mind-boggling text, Sullivan

also recognizes how important it is for a maximum of comic momentum

to poke through all that is instructively wise and (pardon the

irreverence)

tediously expounded upon.

Sullivan has mercifully mined what is most amusing in Shaw’s

philosophical

tracts on avarice, indigence, religion, and the manufacturing of arms.

If such major social issues are the principal food for thought in

this 1905 comedy, it is for the cast to flavor and nourish the

pumped-with-political

posturing and often over-zealous text. In this instance, they do and

admirably. Just when you think you have heard quite enough about

everything

but the weather, each of the fine actors manages to find a way to

make you listen, laugh and respond wholeheartedly to the

"discussion

in three acts" (Shaw’s note).

The discussion more often than not centers on Barbara (Cherry Jones),

a dedicated and sincere young woman who has joined the Salvation Army

and tirelessly helps the poor in London’s East End shelters. Not far

from Barbara’s side is Adolphus Cusins (Dennis O’Hare), the professor

of Greek whose love for Barbara has prompted him to join the Army

(bang the drum loudly) just to be near her.

As the play begins, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Dana

Ivey) has summoned her two daughters Barbara and Sarah (Henny Russell)

and their respective fiancees Adolphus and Charles (Rick Holmes) to

the library of her home. Also present is her pompous, stuffed shirt

of a son Stephen (Zack Orth). A meeting has been arranged to

re-introduce

them to their long-estranged father Andrew Undershaft (David Warner),

an enormously successful and wealthy manufacturer of munitions. The

meeting leads to witty discourse on their futures and finances and

eye-opening visits to a Salvation Army shelter and the father’s

munitions

factory, with each scene designed by John Lee Beatty with a flair

for both the riches and the harsh realities of the times.

A practitioner of the "religion of capitalism," Undershaft

takes on the challenge set forth by Barbara to visit the shelter if

she will visit the factory. While Shaw’s inquiries into the ethics

of charity — and the morality of making money — are as sound

and scandalous as they were 96 years ago, they can, in the style of

the play, come off as stuffy and stale. But this is not the case given

the freshness and vitality imposed by the performances.

Warner, whose fame in the United States comes from such films as

"Tom

Jones," "Morgan," "The Omen," is making an

impressive

American stage debut as the smoothly demonic and erudite tycoon who

maintains a distant grip on his family and their fortunes. Ivey, an

actor who has proved a constant joy from season to season ("The

Last Night of Ballyhoo," "Waiting in the Wings,"

"Driving

Miss Daisy") all but dominates the scenes in which her haughtily

hilarious queen mum attitude propels and peppers the talk and the

action. Tony Award-winner Jones ("A Moon for the Misbegotten")

is lovely to watch as she moves in the title role from a position

of unguarded self-righteousness into a state of more enlightened

humanitarianism.

O’Hare is a pleasure to watch as the cleverly tentative Adolphus who

is as unconsciously disarmed by his love for Barbara, as he is

intrigued

and troubled by Undershaft’s intellectually compelling arguments.

Holmes is a source of constant amusement as the dashing and dim-witted

Charles, and Orth should get credit for finding a heart in the

otherwise sanctimonious and puritanical Stephen. Dare this

presumptuous

critic to suggest that a little judicious pruning of the text would

be in order. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Major Barbara , American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42

Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $40 to $65.


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