Shaw's "Getting Married" is a Rossini opera buffa masquerading as a comedy of ideas.
There are, of course, ideas and wit aplenty in this farce about the legal and emotional perils of getting married in Edwardian London. But if the play is to work as theater, it must give us something we couldn't get by simply reading it. Stephen Porter's production offers almost nothing of this sort.
"Getting Married" is especially difficult because it is an intellectual farce. (That only sounds like a contradiction in terms if you don't know many intellectuals.) We are so unaccustomed to plays about ideas that it is easy to be flabbergasted by the abundance of them in Shaw.
Shaw, however, unlike many of his successors, knew the difference between theater and soapbox. Having been a street-corner orator, he was used to tossing off ideas to startle, entice and entertain passersby. Most of the ideas in this play are more like the little thrusts a matador uses to tease the bull rather than the lunge with which he strikes home.
The ideas he sets forth here are not things he is passionate about (as they are in, say, "Man and Superman"). What makes the play amusing is that these sometimes wildly unorthodox notions are uttered by people who look like they do nothing but chat about the weather over tea.
To bring the play to life, the actors must have a bravura, a theatricality, a farcical brio. The speeches are operatic arias, pretexts for actors to soar. This group of actors by and large lacks musical voices, once a requisite for the profession.
Humor might help find the musical flourishes of Shaw's prose, but this cast is largely humorless, having been brought up on the Method wisdom that making people laugh in the theater is vulgar. Worse, Porter doesn't give them anything to do but stand and talk. There are exceptions, notably Walter Bobbie, Linda Thorson, Scott Wentworth and Simon Jones. But mainly this "Getting Married" is a long sit.
George Bernard Shaw is back in town. And he is back at both his most entertainingly argumentative and annoyingly didactic, his wittiest, cleverest and most crowd-pleasingly vulgar, his most knowingly sophisticated and more virginally sexless. We find him at - where else, apart from the Roundabout? - Circle in the Square, which last night came up with a four-fifths decent account of his 1908 comedy "Getting Married."
Getting married even today is a solemn business, but it was a great deal more solemn in the faintheartedly puritanical days of England around the beginning of the century. This was the place where and time when the magazine Punch offered its celebrated "Advice to Those Contemplating Matrimony" with the pithy one word admonition: "Don't!"
The laws, both of marriage and divorce, were a mess, and the general understanding of the married - and divorced - state markedly ambiguous from the sometimes conflicting viewpoints of Church, State and Society.
Shaw, who saw himself, with some justice, as a social reformer as much as a society playwright, naturally found here a ready-made subject and a prefabricated pulpit.
The scene is a spring morning in the Palace of the Bishop of Chelsea - the fine Norman kitchen of that palace to be precise. The last of the Bishop's five daughters is about to get married, preparations for the wedding are complete, and the various parties readied to proceed to the chapel.
Of course, there is a hitch. Without a hitch there could be no play, and no opportunity for Shaw - in the various capacities of his various characters - to expostulate on the nature of the marriage bond, and the wider, and often wilder, implications of gender differentiation.
During the first act - particularly in such an alert staging as this by Stephen Porter - this is all excellent fun. Unfortunately, the first act has to be followed by a much more confused and confusing second act, where the playwright gets politically and seriously playful, and introduces one of his sexless enchantresses, who always understands the sweet meaning of life and has every man under her feet.
I often feel that if Shaw had been as lively from his waist down as he was from his neck up, his heart and stomach would have had a better deal - but enough of anatomy. "Getting Married" is one of his lesser-known plays - it's not been seen in New York for about 20 years, when I recall it staged by the Equity Library Theater - yet is none the worse for that.
Physically it fits quite well into the theater's rectangular circle - perhaps James Morgan's setting is unduly Spartan, although like all designers in this open space he faces difficulties - while the staging is crisp, and the acting most agreeably unexaggerated.
The performances are all beta-plus, with perhaps only Lee Richardson as the urbane Bishop, Walter Bobbie as his unshockably celibate Chaplain, and Simon Jones as Reginald, a silly ass of an elderly divorced buffer, easily manipulated by his young ex-wife Leo, rising up to alpha-minus.
Of the rest, Victoria Tennant looks remarkably like her lovely mother, the great Irina Baronova, as the spinster Lesbia; Nicolas Coster bumbles nicely as the General who unavailingly loves her; Patrick Tull proves fine as that Shavian stereotype, the Common Man of Uncommon Distinction; Scott Wentworth provides a whippet grace as that cerebral philanderer, Hotchkiss; Linda Thorson does everything that can be done for the expansive enchantress of a Lady Mayoress, Mrs. George, while Madeleine Potter makes Leo into a properly pert little baggage.
Shaw called this a "Disquisitory Play" - implying, I suppose, an elaborate account of the institution in question. In fact, it is rather a superficial account, but I am sure it played its proper Fabian part in the Edwardian politics of its time.
Many of the details of its arguments - doubtless so fresh 80 years ago - are a little eroded by time, although it is fascinating how some of the remarks on marriage and the marrying sound as apposite now as they must have then. The more things change, the more, as they say, things remain the same.
Incidentally, for the record, this is the first production of the 1991/92 Broadway season. May it blossom and flourish - or at least do better than the 1990/91 season it so joyously supplants.
To wed or not to wed, that is the question facing most of the Bridge north family in "Getting Married," Shaw's still timely if loquacious disquisition on the institution, not to mention the superstition, of marriage.
In a new production at Circle in the Square, the first major New York revival of the play in 40 years, the director Stephen Porter and his mostly able cast humorously expound a litany of farcical heresies concerning matrimony in the first half of the evening before becoming bogged down in what Shaw himself admitted was "nothing but talk, talk, talk, talk, talk."
But the talk is all Shaw talk, or as the playwright described it, "a row of Shaws, all arguing with one another." There are a bishop, a general, a gentleman, a snob, a greengrocer, a bridegroom and the women in each of their lives. Every one of them has a different view on the subject of marriage, especially the women.
All of these people come together in the kitchen of the Bishop of Chelsea's residence on the morning of his youngest daughter Edith's wedding. General Bridgenorth, the bishop's brother, is to give the bride away. But weddings always remind him of his unrequited love for Lesbia, the headstrong sister of the Bishop's wife. The room is soon filled with guests, both invited and uninvited. Among the latter is Reginald, another Bridgenorth brother, reputed to be a scoundrel who knocked his wife, Leo, to the ground in front of the gardener and then ran away with a streetwalker to Brighton. As it turns out, Reggie was only doing the gentlemanly thing by providing Leo with grounds for divorce so she could marry young St. John Hotchkiss, a snob with "a face like a mushroom."
Never one to dawdle when he's building plot, Shaw immediately ushers in St. John, followed by Cecil himself, who has some disquieting news. Both Edith and Cecil have received pamphlets titled "Do You Know What You Are Doing by One Who Has Done It," setting out the liabilities each faced under Edwardian England's marriage laws. Being sensible people, each has separately decided the holy bonds of matrimony consist of little more than indentured servitude. The prospect of taking someone for better or worse, when there's no way of knowing just how bad the worse might be, provides Shaw his soap box, and the rest of the play takes on the aspect of a debate on Speaker's Corner.
Through one character after another, Shaw puts forward arguments for polygamy, for polyandry and for abolishing marriage altogether. Just when everyone decides the only reasonable course is to draw up a contract that would set down all the conditions for a marriage, no one can agree on any of the terms. As Donald and Ivana could have told them, prenuptial agreements just tend to make work for lawyers.
Stylistically, Shaw made several departures in writing "Getting Married." The play is not divided into acts or scenes and takes place on one set without any lapses in time (although there is an intermission taken in the middle at Circle in the Square). The plot moves by conversation rather than action, and the play changes in form as it goes along. What begins as a quite funny farce becomes an amusing sociological comedy and finally shifts into the torpid realm of mysticism. As the bishop says at one point, "It's hard to know the right place to laugh."
By the end, Shaw is not so sure it is a laughing matter. In the last third of the play he introduces a new character, Mrs. George, who is the coal merchant's wife, the Mayoress, the greengrocer's sister-in-law and the author of a series of anonymous love letters to the bishop. She is also a clairvoyant who represents Woman personified, and Shaw gives her a couple of tedious sermons that deflate the levity and move the audience to steal glances at their watches.
Up until that time, with a couple of brief exceptions when the production moves slowly, Mr. Porter mines Shaw's wit with the help of some fine performances. The most successful of the menages is the tangled affairs of Reggie, Leo and St. John. Simon Jones is splendid as Reggie, the plain, honest, dull husband who would thump his wife in the garden if that would make her happy. Monocled and positively exuding a stiff upper lip, Mr. Jones is a born Shavian. Madeleine Potter is outrageously saucy as his wife, Leo, who insists on her right to change men as often as the spirit moves her. And Scott Wentworth's St. John is the model of a bounder who holds as dogma that "the whole strength of England lies in the fact that the enormous majority of its people are snobs."
There are other strong readings. Lee Richardson is shockingly sensible as the bishop, who insists on giving the Devil fair play. Elizabeth Franz, who was hilarious as a nun (Sister Mary Ignatius) a few seasons back, is no less credible as the Bishop's wife, whose main concern is the propagation of the race. And Walter Bobbie delivers an excellent deadpan turn as Soames, the solicitor turned chaplain who considers all marriage an abomination and whose advice to one and all is to "take Christian vows of celibacy and poverty." Jane Fleiss is a feisty Edith and J. D. Cullum is the jittery bridegroom Cecil. Patrick Tull's greengrocer would never be mistaken for a duke, and Nicholas Coster has all the bluster for a general, though it becomes a one-note exercise.
There are a couple of problem roles, however, that can't be simply blamed on the weaknesses of the last half of the play. Linda Thorson's Mrs. George is so misconceived as to be an affront. The character is supposed to represent Womanhood: wife, companion, lover, mother all rolled into one. In Ms. Thorson's hands, Mrs. George more resembles a trollop, flighty and flirtatious to the point of being a flibbertigibbet. When she goes into a trance to deliver what Shaw rather ambitiously described as "the entire female sex crying to the ages," Ms. Thorson leaps onto the dining table like a sideshow fortune teller. And Victoria Tennant, in the role of Lesbia, who wants children but not badly enough to take a husband to get them, is more of a whiny old maid than a model of incipient feminism.