Toward the end of the breathtaking Roundabout production of Shaw's "Major Barbara" comes one of the most fascinating kisses I've ever seen onstage. Kisses, needless to say, are not what one associates with Shaw. He is primarily a playwright of ideas and, under Daniel Sullivan's assured direction, the verbal flights are handled as nimbly as they are written. What is often lacking in Shaw productions is the emotions beneath the words. But here, they, too, are given full voice. Hence, this remarkable kiss. The kiss-ee is the title character, a well-born young woman who has sacrificed a life of comfort for the rigors of the Salvation Army, where she has seemingly found her own salvation helping the underclass. Her redemption is undercut by her father, Sir Andrew Undershaft, a munitions tycoon. When he gives the Salvation Army a huge check and her superior accepts it, Barbara feels the purity of her church has been compromised. She doffs her Spartan uniform and dons conventional Edwardian finery. Worse, her father persuades her fiancé, Adolphus, a former classics scholar and a fellow Salvationist, to assume control of his empire. When he agrees, Barbara's acceptance of him implies further acquiescence in her father's corrupting generosity. "Major Barbara" may be Shaw's most cynical play. There is no denying its logic - that the Army buys souls with crusts of bread, whereas the Undershafts of the world buy them with the material comforts that can allow people like Barbara to pursue their spiritual quests. The enthusiasm with which Shaw presents Undershaft carries his eagerness to be perverse to new heights. In 1905, when "Barbara" was first produced, Shaw was still nominally a Socialist - so for him to create a hero who is not only a shameless capitalist but a benefactor of the people as well is quite outrageous. (Years later, in a newsreel interview, he claimed he had found a man who exemplified the principles of Undershaft - Benito Mussolini. Shaw, it must be remembered, never met a dictator he didn't like.) Back to the kiss. Barbara was willing to marry Adolphus when both had taken vows of poverty. Graciously, she has now condescended to accept him despite the fact he will soon be worth millions. Their kiss is one of resignation on her part and gratitude on his. Because they are both Victorians, it also has the tentativeness of people for whom any physical expression is awkward. That they embrace despite all these complications is a sign of the depth of their commitment. The nervous way their lips seek each other out and meet is more moving than most stage kisses. The strength of the moment is a sign of how skillfully Sullivan has controlled the emotional subcurrents in this dazzlingly witty play. As it happens, he has two gifted actors with whom to work. Cherry Jones brings her customary radiance to the role of Barbara, conveying with equal keenness Barbara's pain at her father's entirely benevolent efforts to shatter her convictions. As Adolphus, Denis O'Hare starts out charming but almost mousy. In the last scene, however, he grows more and more businesslike. That he does it understatedly and convincingly makes it splendid comedy. David Warner, making his New York stage debut as Undershaft, is pure, airy elegance. The tendency is to make the character pompous and satanic, but it is far more interesting to have him so silkily seductive. Dana Ivey is expectedly funny as Undershaft's snobbish, estranged wife. Zak Orth is wonderfully funny as her pampered son. And David Lansbury has a droll turn as the sort of lout who would make philanthropists of any stripe despair. John Lee Beatty's sets, dramatically lit by Brian MacDevitt, convey both the time and the comedy beautifully. Jane Greenwood's costumes also capture the period sumptuously. "Major Barbara" is a tricky, difficult play. Director Sullivan and his large cast make it seem effortlessly entertaining.
Judging by his résumé Daniel Sullivan doesn't have much interest in musicals. But as a theater director he seems to work with a baton and a tuning fork, as if a script were a score and the cast a chamber orchestra. He's interested in instrumentation. Mr. Sullivan has proven his nuanced ear in recent productions like David Auburn's ''Proof,'' Jon Robin Baitz's ''10 Unknowns'' and Donald Margulies's ''Dinner With Friends,'' ensemble works whose language creates fugues of harmony and discord rather than lyrical solos, and in Eugene O'Neill's ''Moon for the Misbegotten,'' with the howlingly painful aria of James Tyrone at its center. Mr. Sullivan's gift is for locating and sharpening the dramatic pitch of a playwright's work, as a respectful conductor would do for a composer.
His latest undertaking, the Roundabout Theater Company's elegant, eloquent and very funny production of George Bernard Shaw's ''Major Barbara,'' is a case in point. It is less an interpretation than a celebration of the playwright's winking, topsy-turvy didactics on the subjects of politics, poverty and faith. And for good reason. With the military budget, welfare time limits and tax cuts for the wealthy in the daily headlines, not to mention the convolutions of logic that dominate political discourse, the play, first performed in 1905, seems remarkably alive.
In a world where spin-doctoring has become the rule in public discourse, inoffensiveness is prized and forthrightness has become suspicious, there is new relevance in Shaw's notion that the rhetoric that protects a system of Darwinian economics is a hypocrisy. And even with a first-rate cast led by Cherry Jones, Dana Ivey and the British actor David Warner, who is making his American stage debut, the star of the show, which opened on Broadway last night at the American Airlines Theater, is the playwright himself.
At this early point in the run, the play seems a bit underrehearsed. At one recent performance the actors were still stumbling occasionally as they reckoned with the Shavian convolutions of logic and erudition. But it is evident that they are on their way; the separate tones of its three acts -- the drawing-room comedy of the first, the ominous social drama of the second, the almost farcically triumphant, manifesto quality of the finale -- are all distinctly in place, and the performers are in sync emotionally, if not 100 percent technically.
As he did in ''Proof,'' Mr. Sullivan is working with the set designer John Lee Beatty, and the collaboration is rewarding in similar ways. Like ''Proof'' with its realistic rendition of a pleasantly dilapidated back porch in Chicago, the three acts of ''Major Barbara'' are played out on highly realistic sets -- a fabulously opulent estate library; the weatherbeaten, gated courtyard of a Salvation Army shelter in winter; and a munitions factory, with cleanly efficient walls of corrugated metal and imposing windows high above stage level. The settings are meant, first and foremost, to be crucibles for the text. They are aesthetically grand, but primarily they're full-fledged homes for the playwright's language and ideas.
At the center of the play are the Undershafts. One of drama's most comically complex families, its dynamic is rendered with remarkable clarity here, particularly in the opening act, which is overseen by Ms. Ivey, whose performance as Lady Britomart, the family matriarch, is priceless as she prepares her children for a visit from their industrialist father, Andrew, who hasn't made an appearance since he left the family years ago. Presumptuously haughty and dismissive of those who deserve it -- namely her spineless son, Stephen; her vacant younger daughter, Sarah; and Sarah's dimwitted fiancé, Charles Lomax, who is known as Cholly and is played by Rick Holmes with delicious cluelessness -- Lady Britomart, in Ms. Ivey's hands, is just self-aware enough to recognize her own limitations. As a result, she is insecure around people she knows to be more intellectually confident, namely Andrew (Mr. Warner) and her elder daughter, Barbara (Ms. Jones). She isn't quite certain how to feel about Barbara's fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, known as Dolly (Denis O'Hare), but he's a slippery character to the audience as well.
In any case, Ms. Ivey reigns comically over the action until Andrew and Barbara arrive to begin the philosophical battle that consumes the rest of the play. And with Mr. Warner as the shameless industrialist and Ms. Jones as his daughter, the committed Salvation Army soldier who has inherited his spine and his intelligence but not his godlessness, it is, among the actors if not the characters, a fair fight.
Mr. Warner, lanky, long-faced and silver-haired, plays Andrew, a brilliant, tunnel-visioned despot -- he's a weapons manufacturer -- as a sleek, rumbly-voiced executive, more than comfortable in the unambiguous conviction that his selfishness is good not only for him but for the nation and even for the souls of its citizens. And Ms. Jones, with her apple cheeks, wide smile and preternaturally calm presence, makes Barbara a formidably beatific adversary whose soul-saving agenda may be of the spiritual sort but is backed with steel nonetheless.
In the second act, when she confronts the violent bully Bill Walker in the courtyard of the Salvation Army shelter, his muscle has no chance against her psychic will. Her conquest makes her father admire her, proud to be her father; it's what makes him challenge her faith with his money.
''Major Barbara'' reflects, of course, that Shaw was politically a socialist, but he was also dramatically an ironist; that he made an unapologetic capitalist the play's most charming and sympathetic figure is a marvelous confusion. Indeed, those who are new to the play, or in general to pyrotechnical Shavian wit, may very well be perplexed by Shaw's evident affection for the crafty monster he has created.
Andrew Undershaft (Mr. Warner), an impossibly wealthy weapons manufacturer, is a man of conviction, but his views at least on the surface, are both flattering to himself and anathema to those who uphold familiar and seemingly harmless if not unassailable pieties: that the poor are to be pitied and consoled, that family is sacrosanct, that a faith in God is what sustains a life on earth. ''Money and gunpowder,'' Undershaft replies famously, when asked for the pillars of his faith.
Pressed as to whether things like ''honor, justice, truth, love, mercy'' have a place in his personal religion, he acknowledges that they do, but as the rewards, not the requisites, of properly directed worship. ''They are,'' he says, ''the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong and safe life.'' But what Shaw admires in Undershaft is that he sees what is -- that human nature is to be selfish and that human ability is to be unequal -- instead of what ought to be, which is that life is a fair competition. He sees things like charity, faith and what we now call ''family values'' as dogma -- hypocrisies to defend the status quo as morally good. And he recognizes that society's true attitude is to judge poverty the severest of crimes. It is incumbent on the individual, his argument goes, not to be a criminal. By that logic he's a good guy, maybe a heroic one. Even as he relishes the news that his new weapons are proving more efficient at blowing up innocent people around the world, he keeps hundreds of people from poverty, employed and housed in the community surrounding his munitions works.
In the end, it is Shaw's satiric aim that bends Barbara to the will of her father. Mr. Sullivan's direction underscores this, slyly but unmistakably. He has Mr. Warner deliver Andrew's third-act soliloquy, with its magnificently convoluted and passionate logic, summing up his lunatic views -- as though it were a boilerplate stump speech. Mr. Warner is poised on a raised platform, gesturing like an imploring candidate. It is a platform, however, that supports a cannon, its gray barrel extending behind him with phallic emphasis. This is Mr. Sullivan's way of acknowledging what didn't escape Shaw -- that the hypocrisies of manliness are allied with those of power. And the final bargain, of course, leans Andrew's way. When it becomes clear that Barbara's soul-saving agenda will be gathered under the military-industrial umbrella, you you really do get the feeling that the afterlife may still be up for grabs but that the earthly battle is over and the devil has won. Is that chilling or funny? It is a credit to Mr. Sullivan that the production succeeds in making it both.
Aside from Shakespeare, no British playwright ever combined humor, thoughtfulness and linguistic elegance more adroitly than George Bernard Shaw — and, accordingly, no playwright placed a heavier burden on his players. It takes an actor of considerable skill and intelligence to make dialogue so rich in wit and beauty as convincing as it is impressive.
Fortunately, the Roundabout Theatre Company was able to round up a posse of such actors for its magnificent new production of Shaw's Major Barbara (**** out of four), which opened at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre on Thursday.
Directed with grace and bite by Daniel Sullivan, who recently won a Tony Award for his work in Proof, this cast speaks Shaw's language as naturally and forcefully as I have heard it spoken. Better yet, it makes the Shavian themes and concerns addressed in the play — social justice, political hypocrisy, the quest for morality in an immoral world — both accessible and entertaining, and does full justice to Shaw's savvy, three-dimensional view of human nature.
Barbara is essentially a study of the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, between the qualities that make us noble and those that enable us to survive. The title character, played here with ferocious dignity and gentle warmth by the superb Cherry Jones, is the idealist — a young woman from a wealthy family who decides to devote her life to the needy, promoting faith and charity as the highest virtues. The pragmatist is her father, Andrew Undershaft, an unapologetic capitalist who believes that there are only "two things necessary to salvation: money and gunpowder."
Undershaft strikes a deal with his daughter: He will keep an open mind when he visits the Salvation Army shelter where she works, if she will drop by the factory where he oversees the manufacture of weaponry. Predictably, neither is converted to the other's perspective; but Barbara, who seems at once more stubborn and more amenable to new ideas than her father, is given cause to rethink her neatly fixed worldview.
British stage veteran David Warner is a perfect Undershaft, brimming with wry wisdom and effortless authority. Dana Ivey is a worthy partner and competitor as his estranged wife, an equally strong-willed, no-nonsense woman who contributes to Barbara's enlightenment.
Another key figure, Barbara's beau — a virtuous but crafty professor who ends up reluctantly abetting Undershaft — is wonderfully played by Denis O'Hare, who captures the character's daunting mix of passion and physical frailty.
Other fine performances are turned in by Zak Orth as Barbara's fussy, effete older brother; David Lansbury as a cockney-spewing rascal whom she tries to reform; Richard Russell Ramos as an older, gentler lost soul; and Denis Holmes as a droll butler.
John Lee Beatty's handsome, evocative set design and Jane Greenwood's authentic period costumes add visual appeal. But it's the artists who communicate Shaw's words and ideas that make Major Barbara a stunner.
Does gunpowder have an expiration date? The literary equivalent doesn't seem to: As it closes in on the century mark, George Bernard Shaw's genteel firebomb of a play, "Major Barbara," retains an amazing degree of force. The Roundabout Theater Co., the gallant keeper of the Shavian flame in Gotham for some time, harnesses a creditable amount of the play's intellectual -- and comic -- dynamite in its nicely upholstered Broadway revival of Shaw's 1905 masterwork.
Shaw's dense dialectical comedies don't stand up well under excessive directorial tinkering -- witness Roger Rees' shrill evisceration of "Arms and the Man" two seasons back -- and director Daniel Sullivan wisely lets the ideas of the playwright, as delivered by a mostly excellent cast, hold the stage. The writing is merely given a pretty gilt frame, epitomized by the splendid costumes of Jane Greenwood and sets by John Lee Beatty that are models of Broadway polish and professionalism.
Among the most savory pleasures of the production is the delectable performance of Dana Ivey as Lady Britomart Undershaft, the estranged wife of the armaments tycoon with a peculiar ancestry. There are echoes of Wilde in the play's talk of foundlings and in Lady Undershaft's supremely imperious manner, and Ivey's lyrically calibrated line readings are very much redolent of Wilde's great Lady Bracknell.
More comic filigree is provided by Rick Holmes' enthusiastically dim Charles Lomax, fiance of one of the three Undershaft children whose financial maintenance by their father occasions the great intellectual debate at the heart of the play. Charles is affianced to Sarah (a fine Henny Russell), sister of the lone Undershaft son, Stephen, who turns up his nose -- rather too emphatically in Zak Orth's somewhat overripe turn -- at the distasteful idea of taking over dad's arms business.
The third Undershaft child is, of course, the play's title character, the impassioned major in the Salvation Army who challenges her father to a sort of moral duel: She believes she can convert him to the good work of Christian charity by exposing him to the sufferings of the poor that are assuaged at her shelter. He accepts the challenge on the condition that she allow him to persuade her of the ultimately greater good of his bloody business.
Although many a comforting piety fell by the wayside in the course of the bloody 20th century, there remains something shocking in the way Shaw deftly and delightedly exposes the hypocrisies in the business of Christian good-doing in the crackling comic scene at the shelter (Jenny Sterlin, James Gale and particularly David Lansbury are all superb as the representatives of the lower orders).
Cherry Jones, ideally suited to the role of Major Barbara, registers a touching, pained shock at the conclusion of act one, when she is made to realize that the buying of souls for a piece of bread is a transaction like any other, and one that can't even be effected without the support of money earned, as she sees it, in immoral pursuits (booze and guns). The life drains from her naturally beaming face; a heaviness seems to come into her limbs.
When the debate moves to the somewhat unrealistically Utopian Undershaft factory town, it is taken up primarily by Barbara's fiance, Adolphus Cusins, the Greek professor whose belief in the importance of salvation was a mere mask for his infatuation with Barbara. The ever-dependable Denis O'Hare puts his own impish comic stamp on the role as he is gradually won over to the idea that souls are healthy only when bodies are, and there's no biz like the arms biz.
As espoused by the understated Undershaft of David Warner, these views do not receive the kind of charismatic trumpeting that can deliver the audience right into his hands. Warner gives a solid and intelligent performance but doesn't command the stage the way Undershaft can. Maybe that's as it should be. Shaw was writing before Europe was decimated by decades of bloody warfare, and the amorality of this arms merchant leaves us even more queasy today than presumably it did audiences in 1905; Warner subtly inflects his performance with a touch of existential doubt, and his familiarity as a movie villain may be a sly piece of casting intended to undermine the apparent power of his opinions.
For all the forcefulness of his ideas, Shaw in "Major Barbara" did not make the mistake of writing a neat propaganda play -- its sustaining interest lies not in prescribing solutions but in raising difficult questions. The point, above all, was to clear away cant and acknowledge the folly of living by devised moral codes that don't accord with the truth of human behavior.
Barbara's alive to the difference by the final curtain. The dormant blood in Jones' Barbara is clearly flowing again: The shine in her eyes and the husky firmness in her voice signal the bedazzled awe of a woman who is finally engaging not with a manufactured idea of the world but with the world itself.