Set during the American Revolution, Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" is an exercise in flippancy. Shaw at attacks Puritianism, the inefficiency of the British, hypocrisy, heroism, romantic love...
The play is a parody of 19th-century melodrama- ti is full of unexpected twists the original audience might have assumed would be dire and dangerous. Instead Shaw gives them rollicking wit.
The production by Stephen Porter starts shakily. During the first act you're not even sure this is a comedy, though as soon as the estimable Victor Garver in the title roles makes his extrance, the proper giddy tone is set.
In the second act, Garber, as Dick Dudgeon, an ireeverant ne'er-do-well, turns hero. He lets the British arrest him to save someone else's life. This results in complications the other actors respond to on an emotinoal level inappropriate for farce.
The third act is a kind of tennis game for Dudgeon and Gen. Burgoyne, who lob delicious epigrams back and forth, as if this were Oscar Wilde. Generally, Shaw has more complex intentions than his fellow Irishman (Shaw, after all, was the only London critic to pan "The Importance of Being Earnest"). But here nothing impededs the flow of wit.
Garber has the lightness, the elegance to handle his volleys perfectly. As Burgoyne, Philip Bosco has a tight voice but a suitably aloof and breezy style to send the ball back across the net with force and ease.
Though some of the actors are heavy-handed, Roxanne Hart is strong as a virtuous woman in love with Dudgeon. So is Remak Ramsey as her clergyman husband, who appears more interested in saving Dudgeon's soul than his life: "You think I would let a man with so much good in him die like a dog when, with a few words, he could die like a Christian?" With such wit, even the production's faults are easily forgiven.
Over the years the Circle-in-the-Square has set up a valued special relationship with the plays of Bernard Shaw, and indeed "The Devil's Disciple," which opened there last night, is the eighth play of the Shaw canon to be staged under its auspices.
With its themes of mistaken identity, derring do, and, most portentously, hate as love's fearful mirror, "The Devil's Disciple" is the most unaffected of all Shaw's plays.
Based on such simple, even simplistic, ideas as the proposition that intense love and intense hate have something in common, or that man never knows his destiny until that destiny comes knocking, "The Devil's Disciple" has little of the shallow dialectic and massive, crowd-pleasing irony of Shaw at his most self-indulgently Shavian.
Admittedly like the rest of Shaw's works "The Devil's Disciple" is somewhat short on human feeling, passion or poetry, yet the delightful craftsmanship and nimble wit characteristic of his writing is here beneficially left unadorned with the pseudo-intellectual display that is also Shaw's customary less fortunate stock in trade.
Apart from "Pygmalion" and "Major Barbara," his masterpieces, I find this one of the most attractive of all his plays. It has a modesty and directness to it that is worth any amount of showy paradox, weary debate and gleeful attempts to flatter by shock.
The English are coming. It is New Hampshire in 1777, and the British are making their last stand - taking over towns, hanging a few prominent rebels to encourage the others, and still hoping, with less and less conviction, to win back these errant Colonies for King George.
In the small town of Websterbridge, a rascally Richard Dudgeon - a self-proclaimed Devil's disciple - has inherited his father's house and modest fortune. The British have placed the town under martial law, and intend to execute the local minister, Pastor Anderson, who has made inflammatory remarks about the Crown from his pulpit.
Unfortunately when they come to arrest Anderson, they find, by chance, Dudgeon sitting at ease by the fire drinking tea with Anderson's wife. Presuming that they have the right man, they haul off Dudgeon, who prepares - simply through some innate sense of decency - to accept his bizarre fate and go to the scaffold for another man.
It all ends appropriately enough, but not before Gen. Burgoyne, one of Shaw's most endearingly crusty curmudgeons, has arrived to make cynical mincemeat of the bureaucracy of the British War Office, and the imcompetence of its ragtaggle army of mercenaries and vagabonds.
This has long been one of America's most popular Shaw plays - Dick Dudgeon was an early hit for Richard Mansfield, Shaw's first American sponsor - and the historical background may play some part in this regard.
Still it has not been seen in New York since Frank Dunlop, in the first of BAM's two niggardly attempts to start a classic theater, staged it at the Brooklyn Academy with the late George Rose as a richly comic Burgoyne.
Stephen Porter's current production for Circle-in-the-Square is worthy but a little commonplace, its pleasures as a fast-food hamburger with most of the trimmings.
The designing by Zack Brown, however, proves nimbly resourceful, as he pours what is essentially a proscenium arch play into an arena stage with unnoticeable skill.
The performances vary a great deal. The best is unquestionably Victor Garber's bluff and beguiling Dick Dudgeon, a man of consummate common sense yet one of nature's besotted heroes incapable of reasonable self-preservation.
Garber has become such a fine actor, wearing confidence like a magic cloak over vulnerability, but he never quite seems to find a role that might extend his capabilities, so his brilliance always seems slightly reined in. Even this is an easy, off-the-cuff exercise in low Dudgeon, rather than the heights of which he appears capable.
The other memory-book role - a certain scene-stealer - is Gentlemanly Johnny Burgoyne, and Philip Bosco turns in a perfectly judged and routined performance. Yet this excellent actor is tending to use his smooth vocal mannerisms and convincingly authoritative presence with too facile an ease, offering a special stylized way of performing rather than a fully measured performance.
Remak Ramsay made less of the man of action hiding behind the man of cloth that I would have hoped for, and as his bewitched wife, Roxanne Hart was too dull by three-quarters. The rest of the performances faded into the backcloth, even though Paul Ukena Jr., did his best to give some conviction to the Cockney Sergeant.
A work like this needs exceptionally stylish playing to emerge as anything more than an agreeable curiosity. Here - the resourceful Garber apart - it does not get it, although that does not actually make it anything less than agreeable. Nor does it make it anything more.
While there are no sure things in the New York theater, the partnership of George Bernard Shaw and Philip Bosco comes close. This playwright and this actor, often in league with the director Stephen Porter, have been an irresistible, nearly inseparable pair for over a decade, whether converging at the Roundabout Theater (for ''Misalliance'') or at the Circle in the Square (for ''Major Barbara,'' to name a favorite among many). Good as Mr. Bosco has been in a wide variety of roles during his long career, Shaw seems to bring out the Ralph Richardson in him. It doesn't matter if the actor is playing one of the writer's magnates or servants or supermen: an exquisitely facetious twinkle lights up his eyes, a droll musicality infuses his chalky comic voice.
In ''The Devil's Disciple,'' now at the Circle in the Square, Mr. Bosco reunites not only with Shaw and Mr. Porter, but also with Victor Garber, who proved a brilliant newcomer to the team two seasons ago in ''You Never Can Tell.'' Once again the work of both stars is exemplary, just as Mr. Porter's staging is largely above reproach. But this time the gathering of our most lustrous Shavian ensemble seems a frivolous waste of valuable resources. ''The Devil's Disciple'' doesn't work up much comic froth until Mr. Bosco makes his appearance, 90 minutes into the evening, in the final scene. A half-hour later, it's time to go home.
Set in the rebellion-torn New Hampshire of 1777 and written in 1896, ''The Devil's Disciple'' is the first of its author's early ''Three Plays for Puritans.'' Like the contemporaneous (and somewhat more substantial) ''You Never Can Tell,'' it was pitched at the commercial theater of the West End. Shaw was out to concoct a melodrama packed with all of what he called the ''stale tricks'' of its Victorian prototypes: ''the reading of the will, the heroic sacrifice, the court martial, the execution, the reprieve at the last moment.'' To elevate a form he regarded as ''threadbare,'' he inverted its values. True to ''Tale of Two Cities'' convention, the play's hero, Dick Dudgeon (Mr. Garber), allows the Redcoats to take him away to be hanged when they mistake him for the parson, Anthony Anderson (Remak Ramsay), actually intended for execution. But the devilish Dick, a gleefully unabashed reprobate in an insufferably sanctimonious community, sees himself as a cynic and realist rather than a martyr. He scoffs at anyone who would sentimentally ascribe his sacrifice to noble or romantic motives.
Intellectually intriguing as Shaw's subversion of melodrama may be, the play is generally more interesting to contemplate than to watch. As Eric Bentley long ago wrote, ''the dialogue of the first two acts might almost have been written by anybody.'' Although those two acts, both presented before intermission, are painless and pleasant as performed by this company, time has robbed the melodrama of its pulpy kicks and the dialectical underpinnings of their novelty. Amusing as it is at first to watch the sardonic, cocky Mr. Garber mock his Puritan family and neighbors, the line of comic attack grows repetitive and soon vanishes in the mechanical swirl of events.
When Mr. Bosco rides in for the rescue later on, he does so as the gentlemanly British General Burgoyne. While the character bears the name of the commander doomed to surrender to the rebel forces at Saratoga, Shaw gives us a man who, as his prankish stage directions have it, is ''witty enough to write successful comedies.'' As Burgoyne takes time out from adjudicating Dick's fate to digress urbanely about the incompetence of his own army and King George's London bureaucracy, ''The Devil's Disciple'' itself finally passes as witty enough to be the invention of a writer of successful comedies.
Perhaps Mr. Porter could have made more of the play's earlier action if he had encouraged Mr. Garber to reveal the tragic, fanatical side that Shaw claimed to see in his hero. Yet Mr. Garber's at once dashing and insolent Dick, forever attracting and rejecting female adoration, is so buoyant that one would hate to see his heady charm beclouded by psychological complexity. With the exception of Rosemary Murphy, who is excessively humorless as the impossibly pious Dudgeon matriarch, the rest of Mr. Porter's cast is also lightfooted. Mr. Ramsay's clergyman is no pompous fool but a thinking man on the way to the unexpected destiny that Shaw springs on him during his and Dick's hour of trial. As the minister's sniveling and swooning young wife -a high-wire act for a contemporary actress - Roxanne Hart is outrageous comic perfection, continuing to follow the humiliating dictates of cheap melodrama well after the men around her start playing by new rules. In the small roles of the respectively illegitimate and imbecilic Dudgeons, Marguerite Kelly and Adam LeFevre make promising impressions.
Properly outfitted with wigs and tights and tri-cornered hats, the cast gathers on attractive Zack Brown sets that employ acres of simulated pine to evoke Colonial America. Like Mr. Bosco and company, the scenery seems to weigh more than the play; one keeps wondering why so much knowhow has been lavished on so slight a piece of the Shaw canon. As ''The Devil's Disciple'' came to its conclusion, a startled woman behind me asked, ''Is it over?'' She sounded, and not entirely without reason, as if she were still waiting for the show to begin.