Widowers’ Houses: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
We all have our ideological hobbyhorses. For George Bernard Shaw it was the notion that very little money can be considered truly clean. He revisited this theme time and again, starting with his first drama, Widowers’ Houses, undertaken on a fellow critic’s dare and first staged in a private club (to evade governmental censorship) in 1892. Director David Staller, who has helmed readings and/or productions of Shaw’s 60-odd plays, offers the rare opportunity to study this obsession at its inception—in an adaptation not always to the good. It’s an odd homage that seeks to improve on an acknowledged master.
To Staller’s credit, he has turned out a sprightly, enjoyable rendering that comes across as a piquant drawing-room comedy packing some provocative talking points, very much in the spirit of the original. Mostly he expands the role of various servants, now amalgamated in the form of a German waitress and, later, London chambermaid, played by ordinarily impressive downtown performer Hanna Cheek. Staller’s intent was perhaps to beef up the role(s), in order to provide more incentive: hence some tedious and totally unnecessary stage business rearranging Brian Prather’s minimalist set. However, a certain audience unease is inevitable whenever a secondary—in this case tertiary—character insists on pulling focus.
Another sore thumb is Jonathan Hadley’s over-the-top performance as William de Burgh Cokane, a meddling snob who serves as companion/advisor to the newly minted Dr. Harry Trench (Jeremy Beck, nicely calibrated). When I attended, Hadley, accustomed to Broadway stages, had yet to adapt his delivery to the tiny Beckett Theatre space. Volume aside, the transformation of this character from a weak, conniving Wally Cox type (“fidgety, touchy, and constitutionally ridiculous,” in Shaw’s description) to a loud-mouthed bon vivant throws off the group chemistry.
Most effective in their roles are Beck, who conveys all the giddiness (and judgmentalism) of youth; thoroughly unmodern (which is to say period-appropriate) Talene Monahon as his love interest, who in private proves a bit of a monster; imposing Terry Layman as her father, a slumlord who has rent-gouged his way to riches and respectability; and especially John Plumpis as the collection agent Lickcheese (the name a Dickensian throwback), who, impoverished himself, lives off those even worse—until he hits upon a scheme for gentrification. The phenomenon didn’t even have a name back then, but Shaw saw it coming.—Sandy MacDonald
Beckett Theatre (Off Broadway). By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Staller. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.