Philip Bosco's Andrew Undershaft and Rachel Gurney's Lady Britomart are the chief virtues of the new Circle in the Square production of "Major Barbara," which opened last night. His forceful and enthusiastic account of the munitions tycoon confident of the beneficence of his calling, and her exquisitely modulated performance as his equally assured and imperious wife whom he left when their now-grown offspring were children lend distinction to an otherwise uneven production.
The first and third acts (the play is presented with a single intermission following Act Two) pass agreeably enough with Bosco and Gurney on hand in both. Some of the subsidiary roles are handled in an ordinary fashion, but these two, and especially Bosco - for the elder Undershaft is the play's plum role - keep Shaw's entertaining conceits and contradictions bubbling along merrily.
The evening's chief letdown is in the second-act Salvation Army shelter scene. A chestnut-haired Laurie Kennedy has presented a very pretty picture of the title character from the start, and being a gifted actress she has performed it with some mettle, but not enough. However, it is Jon De Vries' Bill Walker, that proud bully who is barely arrived on the scene when he is cuffing about both the mild-mannered Army aide Jenny Hill and the cynical crone Rummy Mitchens, who dampens this act with an unconvincing performance featuring a thick, almost unintelligible accent. The other hangers-on here aren't of much help, either, though again Bosco comes to the rescue.
Nicolas Surovy, sporting a feathery beard, makes little impression as Barbara's devoted Adolphus Cusins, the Greek scholar who turns out to be a foundling under English law and therefore a worthy successor to Undershaft, until the final scene. Some of the secondary parts are adequately set forth. Nicholas Walker makes a pleasing Broadway debut as Stephen Undershaft, the son who is unfit for any career other than politics; Gina Franz is amusing as the featherbrained Sarah Undershaft; and a lanky Rand Bridges gets his easy laughs as her fiance, the stereotypical jolly idiot of an Englishman who punctuates all conversation with "Oh, I say!"
Stephen Porter has directed the play capably, and Zack Brown's settings and costumes are both attractive and amusing, as the occasion requires. But the play does suffer being spread out on the Circle's large, open playing area. If only Bosco's vigor and Gurney's grace could have been matched throughout, what a fine evening this might have been! In any case, Shaw and "Major Barbara" are always welcome.
Circle in the Square, one of the city's foremost cultural institutions, has just belatedly begun its 1979-80 season. Indeed it is so belated that it is already 1980. A little precious time for financial retrenchment was bought by carrying Michael Weller's new play, Loose Ends, last season's final offering, on through the summer and into the beginning of this season.
Yet stringency is clearly the order of the day. Next year Circle in the Square will celebrate its 30th Anniversary and New Yorkers of good will and theatrical interest should ensure that there is a next year for this, New York's oldest extant theater company. A big oil corporation - tired of subsidizing British television - could take time off and secure the Circle's future. A deluge of private contributions would not merely help immediately, but could also demonstrate to our funding sources how much this company means to us.
Now to the season's first new production, Shaw's Major Barbara, which is decently staged by Stephen Porter, and has a couple of exceptional performances, from Laurie Kennedy as Barbara, and Philip Bosco as the Machiavellian munitions magnate, Andrew Undershaft.
Major Barbara is, of course, one of Shaw's better plays, although I can see no particular reason for caring for it on that account. Certainly it is full of the chop-logic dialectic that some people can mistake for intellectualism. It has simple jokes about the stupidity of politicans, the hypocrisy of religion, and that kind of thing, and its stubbornly inverted logic has its own ironic charm.
Barbara is the rich girl of conscience at the beginning of the century who embraces religions as a means of salvation. Her father, the wicked Undershaft, wishes to impose a more practical morality on the world. He is a benign revolutionary believing in bullets rather than ballots, and getting cheerfully rich as a consequence.
Miss Kennedy as one of Shaw's new women, Barbara, had the right pert piquancy of an intelligent woman about to grow up into a bore. Bosco's unctuously triumphant Undershaft proved a model as the ironic tycoon, and I admired Rachel Gurney's insufferable urbanity as that unlikely but obnoxious Lady Britomart.
Among the cocknies, found in the Salvation Shelter, Paddy Croft as Rummy Mitchens and Norman Allen as Snobby Price caught the right Shavian touch, but Jon De Vries over-acted quite ludicrously as the bully, Bill Walker.
A well-made play, if full of talk and character, and well done. So support our local Circle in the Square with an odd buck or two - particularly now when it needs it.
In "Major Barbara," now most happily winning both the battle and the war at Circle in the Square, Philip Bosco as the munitions maker Undershaft is having one of several delightfully condescending conversations with the wife he put aside long years ago. The conversation is about the importance of foundlings.
Undershaft himself was a foundling, and look - just look! - at the mighty position he's risen to: power, glory and money bulge from his pockets. But he is having the very devil of a time finding another foundling to succeed him when he is forced to sell out his business. And only a foundling will do. "I want a man with no relations and no schooling: that is, a man who would be out of the running altogether if he were something of a foundling itself. Though somehow always recognized as an important work, it's rarely been successful in production - what with its startlingly impassioned speeches in defense of cannonry and shrapnel, and its skimping on its virtuous heroine while giving the tastiest speeches to her scoundrelly dad. I know that, until now, I've never seen a satisfactory production on stage or screen.
And here it is, just between 50th and 51st Streets, speaking its piece with a satiny relish, smiling outrageously with each and every insult, disembowling a pious idealism with the heartiest good cheer. Director Stephen Porter has assembled a very good company that is very good company, but it is clear that Mr. Bosco - variously described as Mephistophelean and Machiavellian - is the most engaging of the lot.
With his characteristic playfulness, forever perverse, Shaw has given his best speeches to the worst man. Mr. Bosco's Undershaft is no saint; indeed, as he explains, if he ever dared turn the other cheek it would bankrupt him instantly. But he is a happy, generous, infernally articulate fellow, face wreathed in smiles as he listens, a torrent of choice words lying in wait for the moment when he can tolerate fools no longer.
His only son is a fool, he sees that. Not having laid eyes on his children since they were infants, he must study them, realistically. By the time the pompous Stephen (Nicholas Walker) has loftily dismissed business, law, art and philosophy as studies that are quite beneath him, Mr. Bosco is on his feet in noble, ironic wrath. "Hardly anything left but the stage, is there?" he inquires, enjoying his own joke and secretly savoring Shaw's.
This ardent capitalist has an eye out for one of his daughters, though. The rebellious, auburn-haired Barbara (all of the Undershaft women are auburn-haired in Mr. Porter's sly, meticulous production) has put on the cape, bonnet and badge of the Salvation Army and devoted herself to good works among the poor, obviously in expiation of her father's social crimes ("I saved you from the crime of poverty" is the tart response she gets). The spirited Laurie Kennedy plays the part with a firm and haughty intelligence.
She's intelligent enough to discover, to her dismay, that the lofty cause she serves depends for its survival upon donations from the rich, including munitions-makers, and she is quickly ripe for plucking by her father's predatory hand. Mr. Bosco is intrigued by her love (Nicholas Surovy), as well. He's a professor of Greek who's been willing to take up the Army's bass drum and beat it through the streets, so long as he can be near Barbara. Believing in all religions equally, he seems a mild enough fellow. But there's a bulldog inside him, and Mr. Bosco detects it.
The evening's big scene isn't a rousing showdown between Barbara and Undershaft but a cracklingly philosophical donnybrook between Undershaft and this deceptively tame scholar. It's played to a fare-thee-well by both, but particularly by the triumphantly vehement Mr. Bosco, who can maintain a machine-gun pace without losing a gleeful syllable or an ounce of Shaw's wit. Miss Kennedy gets her innings later and manages them spankingly, leading Undershaft to call out to her suitor, "We must have Barbara with us!" His exultation stems from the fact that, though all three think differently about the uses of power, they do all think. Along with his author, he asks no more.
The debate, in spite of its subject matter, is never dour, always delectable. Yes, the play runs long, and yes, you wonder if it mightn't be cut a bit here and there. Then you realize that any and every cut would lose you something. The scene at Salvation Army headquarters, with the professional poor sponging on their benefactors, could do with trimming - but then you'd have to get along without one of the occasion's finest performances, that of Jon De Vries as a bruiser who's willing to hurl Army lass Amanda Carlin about by the pigtails, but who's rather ineffectual with someone his own size. The rueful resentment of Mr. De Vries's plaint, "Why ain't I got a heart the same as anybody else?," is perfect, and the pretty Miss Carlin may well prove something of a find.
Elsewhere, there are secondary pleasures you'd certainly want to keep. Rachel Gurney's delicately pragmatic wife to Undershaft, maneuvering everyone while proclaiming herself "only a woman," is cunning, and choice. Son-in-law Rand Bridges, hair carefully combed as though to hide a dent in his skull, speaks as though both his vocal cords and his brain had been strained through a sieve. His wife, Gina Franz, seems to have caught the disease from him. The others, especially Frank Hamilton as "nothing but a paper on the scrap heap," are just as entertaining.
Director Porter has taken care to find the joy in no-holds-barred argument everywhere, and you'll find yourself listening intently for fear of missing an insouciant riposte. The questions raised, in spite of the triple-tiered hobble skirts worn by the ladies, have a curiously contemporary ring to them, too.
In fact, it is the very model of a modern "Major Barbara."