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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
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
between men and women. If witty rhetoric characterized his most
plays, including "Pygmalion" (his most popular),
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
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
tediously expounded upon.
Sullivan has mercifully mined what is most amusing in Shaw’s
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
posturing and often over-zealous text. In this instance, they do and
admirably. Just when you think you have heard quite enough about
but the weather, each of the fine actors manages to find a way to
make you listen, laugh and respond wholeheartedly to the
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
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
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
Jones," "Morgan," "The Omen," is making an
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,"
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
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
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
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
Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $40 to $65.
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