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Theater review: 'Engaging Shaw' at the Old Globe

August 8, 2011 | 12:18 pm

Shaw
"No woman has defeated me yet," George Bernard Shaw, at 41, pointedly tells a friend who's dared to suggest that Shaw has met the woman to whom he should propose.

Marriage, Shaw feels, is a distraction, a diminishment. Or, as he later puts it, "an abomination and a nightmare."

These sentiments are expressed in a play called "Engaging Shaw," about the acquaintance and early relationship of Shaw and his future wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, in the middle 1890s. We know how the story ends before it's begun, but getting there -- through spirited debate, heated emotion and the occasional flinty spark of desire -- is thought-provoking fun. 

John Morogiello's comedy, being given its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe, incorporates material from Shaw's works and letters, as well as essays by Sidney Webb and diary entries by wife Beatrice Webb. The Webbs, like Shaw, were leaders of the Fabian movement of socialism.

Shaw, the critic, playwright, devoted socialist and playful egotist, is front and center not only as a character but as a model. The play is written like one of his ("Pygmalion," for instance), with talk zipping in thrilling, dizzying circles. Rod Brogan portrays him with a sprightliness that suggests he likes to shock people.

Angela Pierce, as Payne-Townshend, gives as good as she gets. Whenever she squares her shoulders to face Brogan's Shaw, you know a sporting match is afoot.  As the Webbs, Natalie Gold and Michael Warner provide an image of well-partnered marriage, momentary barks and banishments aside. 

Anti-romantics that they are, Shaw and the independently wealthy, independent-minded Payne-Townshend aren't destined to share a conventional-seeming life. The marriage was never consummated, so the real story goes, and Shaw maintained a long, intimate correspondence with the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the basis of another Shaw-inspired play, Jerome Kilty's "Dear Liar." A game of marital cat and mouse ensues nevertheless, and director Henry Wishcamper keeps the energy, like the conversation, crackling around the huge octagonal writing table at the center of Wilson Chin's set design for this in-the-round staging. 

"Engaging Shaw" sends audiences home feeling stimulated and pleasantly diverted, though not rousingly so. Something essential fails to get under the skin. Still, one leaves with the satisfaction of seeing two people come together as equals, in a true meeting of minds.

RELATED

Theater review: 'Misalliance' at South Coast Repertory

Theater review: Shaw's 'Don Juan in Hell' by Shakespeare Orange County

Theater review: 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Old Globe in San Diego

 -- Daryl H. Miller, from San Diego

"Engaging Shaw," the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 4. $29 to $67. (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Rod Brogan as George Bernard Shaw and Angela Pierce as Charlotte Payne-Townshend in "Engaging Shaw" at the Old Globe. Credit: Ed Krieger / The Old Globe.

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