If it’s true that the human brain is our largest erogenous zone, then things must have gotten pretty darned erotic between George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Payne-Townshend, or at least such is the case in Engaging Shaw, John Morogiello’s highly intelligent, highly entertaining, and yes, highly engaging romantic comedy, now getting its West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.

“Bernie” Shaw is about to turn forty when we first meet him in the summer of 1896, by which point he’d already written Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Arms And The Man, and Candida (among other titles)—though it wasn’t until two years later with The Devil’s Disciple that his success as a playwright truly began. It’s during this summer holiday at the English country cottage of close friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb that Shaw first runs into Charlotte—quite literally—while out on a bicycle jaunt. The Webbs have invited the Irish heiress in hopes of persuading her to bankroll their London School Of Economics. Before long, Charlotte has set her eyes on Shaw and made a deal with her matchmaking friend Beatrice: “Tell me I have an ally, and you shall have a school!”

An the time Engaging Shaw takes place, our titular (anti)hero has become a self-described philanderer (though it seems that most of his philandering takes place in the hundreds of letters he writes each month, a large portion of them to British stage star Ellen Terry). The last thing he wants is what we now call “a relationship,” and as for sex, well that seems to be the last thing on either his or Charlotte’s minds, the latter insisting to Beatrice that what she wants from Shaw is “no sex, just exclusivity.”

And so the two women friends conspire to engage Shaw in the most engaging way possible—through that aforementioned erogenous zone, with the aim of getting the confirmed bachelor down on one knee, white flag flying and engagement ring in hand.

Since this is a play about George Bernard Shaw, it should come as no surprise that Engaging Shaw is more than a tad talky, particularly in its first act, though admittedly it is talkiness of the most intelligent sort, much of it revolving around its four characters’ passion for Socialism and social causes.

It isn’t until Act Two that Engaging Shaw truly takes flight, but when it does, it soars high indeed. There’s an international letter exchange sequence among the four friends that, staged in the round by director Henry Wishcamper, becomes quite heady stuff. Playwright Morogiello sets the romantic stakes so high in the second act that you will likely find yourself on the edge of your seat in anticipation of the happy ending history tells you is coming but which Morogiello adroitly keeps you in doubt of till the play’s final moments.

As Shaw, a particularly engaging Rod Brogan gives as multilayered a performance as you’re likely to see any time soon, conveying the complex mix of self-importance, wit, seductiveness, vulnerability, ill-temper, brilliance, and charm that was G.B.S. Opposite Brogan, a stunning Angela Pierce gives as good as she gets as a Charlotte every bit Shaw’s equal and therefore his perfect match, if she can just get him to see what (or who) is right before his eyes.

Michael Warner provides fine comedic support as Sidney, but it is the exquisite Natalie Gold’s work as Beatrice that is likely to stick with you long after the final fadeout. Watch the complex play of emotions on Gold’s face when Beatrice realizes that her feelings for Shaw run far deeper than she has admitted and you will what star quality and acting prowess are all about.

An in-the-round staging fits Engaging Shaw to a T, making the audience virtual flies on the Webbs’ walls and keeping the drama as up close and personal as if this were a 99-seat theater rather than one 2.5 times that size. True, there are moments when one side will have a better view than the opposite one (I felt particularly fortunate to have Charlotte facing me in one pivotal scene where so much was etched on Pierce’s face), but director Wishcamper gets high marks for keeping these as few as possible.

Scenic designer Wilson Chin’s beautifully appointed drawing room has been handsomely lit by Matthew Richards, with Paul Peterson’s sound design providing just-right musical moods. Costume designer Alejo Vietti has garbed the cast in elegant late 19th Century garb, the women looking particularly striking in their long skirts, high ruffled collars, and fancy hats. Lavinia Henley is stage manager.

You don’t have to be a George Bernard Shaw lover to find yourself thoroughly engaged by Engaging Shaw, and it just might make your next attempt at sitting through an actual Shavian work more engaging that it’s been in years past. Knowing a bit more about the man who wrote those talky plays that I’ve found a bit tough going at times, I’m actually starting to look forward to my next walk on the Shaw side.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 21, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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