- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

Billionaire death merchant Andrew Undershaft (Ted van Griethuysen) is Donald Trump with better hair.

Filthy rich and finely turned out, Undershaft believes that poverty is the most grievous of sins and that money is the root of all ecstasy. His daughter, Major Barbara (Vivienne Benesch), is a stiff-backed, high-principled, tambourine-banging soldier in the Salvation Army. She sees an ennobling idealism in the poor people she offers bread and salvation — even though the blokes and broads of East End London admit when she’s out of earshot that they are only pretending to be saved to be fed.

In George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” amoral father and pious daughter take each other on, and their battleground is the merits of wealth versus faith, hope and charity. Their war is waged first in a sumptuous drawing room that could host the opening act of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” then in Barbara’s homely mission shelter, and finally in Undershaft’s munitions plant — a gleaming tribute to industry, organized labor and the regimented perfection of a factory town.

Ultimately, Barbara realizes that virtue can coexist with excess profits and agrees to take over the family business at the side of her fiance, Adolphus Cusins (Karl Kenzler). The moral of the story? That “the way of life lies in the factory of death” — Shaw at his most wickedly ironic.

Her father, on the other hand, remains as he was from the beginning — an unrepentant realist. Undershaft is one of the more splendid creations in Shaw’s 1905 comedy, a delirious concoction of social consciousness and Socratic dialogue wrapped in elements of an impeccable, hypocrisy-revealing farce. The Shakespeare Theatre’s production, directed by Ethan McSweeny, keeps all these seemingly disparate elements aloft in a staging that frequently soars.

Much of the production’s brainy buoyancy stems from the cast. Mr. van Griethuysen as Undershaft combines the blunt force of a successful plutocrat with an elegant carriage and extravagant delivery. His partner in the delicious double-take department is Helen Carey, playing his haughtily high-minded wife Lady Britomart with a formidable flair. Her physical humor is genteelly slapstick, especially when her namby-pamby son Stephen (Tom Story) trails her around the parlor trying to anticipate where to place her special cushion.

Mr. Story is the personification of a Wildean “slim, gilt thing” as, a young man not fit for anything but well-expressed nonsense. He and Mr. van Griethuysen, who have been admirably paired before in “The Invention of Love” and “A Number” at Studio Theatre, once again give off dramatic fireworks in a second-act showdown that pits a prosperous father against a poppycock son.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, Andrew Long vividly plays a bruised brute whose embarrassment over his poverty and drinking comes out in fisticuffs and rage, and Catherine Flye brings subtle scene-stealing humor to the role of Rummy Mitchens, one of the mission’s denizens.

The cast is so strong they nearly overpower the heroine of the play. Miss Benesch possesses the intellect and the conviction needed for Major Barbara. But, in part because you never sense the beating heart under her starched uniform, this production of “Major Barbara” undermines Shaw’s probable intention: It plays as a frothy entertainment — with the audience clearly rooting on the side of avarice and big money — rather than a witty philosophical inquiry into whether poverty is a virtue or the unnecessary cause of all human suffering.

***

WHAT: “Major Barbara” by George Bernard Shaw

WHERE: Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 23.

TICKETS: $23.50 to $79.75

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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