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No playwright has ever made a more spectacularly self-assured debut than George Bernard Shaw, who blasted off the theatrical launching pad in 1892 with “Widowers’ Houses,” a refreshingly unpreachy comedy about the evils of capitalism that ought to be as popular as “Pygmalion.” Instead, it’s mostly forgotten save by Shaw scholars: “Widowers’ Houses” was last performed on Broadway in 1907, and until TACT/The Actors Company Theatre’s new production opened off Broadway, I’d seen it done only once, by Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre eight summers ago. Fortunately, TACT’s revival, directed by David Staller, is a winner, a small-scale staging that’s as full of Shavian sparkle as the play itself.
Shaw ranked “Widowers’ Houses” among his “unpleasant” plays, since it deals with the grim subject of urban poverty. But he knew that the only way to get most people to think about unpleasant things is to make them laugh, and so he concocted a fizzy boulevard comedy à la Oscar Wilde whose anti-hero, Sartorius (Terry Layman), is a rich, self-consciously pompous fellow who is looking to marry off Blanche (Talene Monahon), his difficult daughter, to a well-bred gent in need of a fortune. Enter Harry (Jeremy Beck), a doctor from a suitable family that lives on its income. So what’s the problem? Just this: Sartorius is a notorious slumlord who makes his money by “screwing” rent (Shaw’s word) out of the impoverished occupants of the rundown tenements that he owns….
Brian Prather’s set is simple but suggestive, and the cast has been selected with the greatest of care: Mr. Layman is sumptuously rich-voiced, while Ms. Monahon plays Blanche as a startlingly predatory vampire whose ill-gotten fortune any prudent man would think twice about hunting….
Steve Martin is, among many other things, a good banjo player who writes not-so-great plays. Now he’s branched out by writing a really bad bluegrass-pop musical. In “Bright Star,” directed by Walter Bobbie, Mr. Martin and Edie Brickell, a singer-songwriter with whom he has made two albums, tell the story of a painfully earnest young writer from the hills of North Carolina (A.J. Shively) who comes home from World War II and sells a painfully earnest short story to a prestigious Asheville quarterly edited by an unhappy woman (Carmen Cusack) with a terrible secret—or, rather, a Terrible Secret, this being the kind of show that is constructed exclusively out of upper-case clichés….
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To read my review of Widowers’ Houses, go here.
To read my review of Bright Star, go here.
The trailer for TACT’s Widowers’ Houses:
The TV commercial for Bright Star: