Somebody ought to do a study on the subject of second-rate plays by first-rate playwrights. After all, every accomplished scribe, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Wendy Wasserstein, has written some duds, but nobody has yet explained the forces at work behind these seemingly inevitable failures. Just what was it that undermined almost all of Tennessee Williams' later work? How did David Mamet transition from the brilliance of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross to the insignificance of The Woods and The Cryptogram?
Of course, honest critics will differ as to which plays belong in the drawer of the second-best, but no one can deny that virtually every playwright who ever lived has made a contribution. From the Greeks we might adduce Prometheus Bound and Alcestis; from Shakespeare, King John and Cymbeline; from Ibsen, Rosmersholm; and from Arthur Miller, After the Fall. Come to think of it, there are a lot more losers out there than winners, and most of our best writers are like baseball players batting .400: Great as they are, they screw up 60 percent of the time.
Still, it's worth it for the occasional Oresteia, Hamlet, Master Builder and Death of a Salesman. And we lovers of the game have come to take it for granted: A home run at the last at-bat doesn't tell us anything about the next. You thought The Heidi Chronicles was brilliant? Well, after it came An American Daughter and Old Money.
All right, the occasion for these thoughts: I've just seen a definitively second-rate play, George Bernard Shaw's The Millionairess, at Sarasota's Asolo Theatre. If you've never heard of The Millionairess, there's a good reason. This is Shaw without much of a premise, without much of a plot, without even one fascinating character and without the dazzling paradoxes that, at best, adorn his dialogue.
The Asolo production is more than competent, but with a play this unexceptional, not even a fine staging can make us glad we're at the theater. If you're a fan of Shaw — if you love Pygmalion, Man and Superman, Saint Joan — let me warn you that The Millionairess shares none of these plays' strengths, and possesses quite a few of its own special weaknesses. You won't be utterly bored — the comedy's funny occasionally, and the English is elegant, if insufficiently witty. But unless you go to the theater for tepid experiences, you won't be much pleased either. This is inferior Shaw, unremarkable all the way.
The story of the play concerns Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, inheritor of 30-million pounds, and now in search of a divorce and a new husband. While we're waiting for something resembling a plot, we meet all the other characters of any importance: Epifania's present spouse Alastair, his lover Patricia, Epifania's paramour Adrian, everyone's solicitor Julius Sagamore, and the Egyptian Doctor who's the most imaginative character in the comedy. For most of Act One these personages do little more than talk about their relationships to each other and money; and then, finally, Epifania agrees to the test that will decide whether or not she can marry the Egyptian Doctor (a match so unlikely that its potential generates little suspense).
In Act Two, Epifania has a brief and hardly credible encounter with poverty — how the Shaw of Major Barbara would have written this scene! — and then we're whisked off to a fancy hotel where all the incredible loose ends are unconvincingly tied up. Then the play is, blessedly, over, and we can reenter the comparatively fascinating real world.
Fortunately, the Asolo company is in several cases excellent, so there's some enjoyment in watching the actors even after one's despaired of the characters. Best of all are Douglas Jones as utterly pragmatic solicitor Sagamore, David Breitbarth as Epifania's eventually battered lover Adrian, Sharon Spelman as a resolutely impoverished Old Woman and Bradford Wallace as the altruistic, religious Egyptian Doctor.
As Epifania, Carolyn Michel turns in a solid performance, but what's needed is complexity, multi-dimensionality. Patrick James Clarke looks windswept as Epifania's husband but never persuades us that he's really married to her. And Devora Millman as Patricia seems to live in her own world, happily unaffected by anything onstage or off.
Paul Weidner's direction repeatedly offers us tableaux in which the characters are spread across the stage as on a mathematician's axis; more depth and less symmetry would add life to the staging. Steven Rubin's several sets, all featuring three enormous one-pound notes set on end and reaching to the ceiling, are rather uninteresting in Act One, but then stunningly vivid in Act Two. And Vicki S. Holden's period costumes (the play is set in 1935) are attractive and appropriate. One only wishes the whole play were as charming as the Egyptian Doctor's fez.
It's not. The Millionairess is the second insignificant Shaw that the Asolo has offered in the last two years — the other was You Never Can Tell — and now I'm afraid I see a pattern: We're going to have the worst of GBS, and each time the mediocrity is going to be hailed as a "lost masterpiece."
Before this goes too far — before I have to review The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles or Too True To be Good — I have an appeal to make to certain Sarasota savants: Cease! Desist! Shaw wrote a shelf-load of plays, many of them unworthy of revival. Have pity on critics, on ordinary audience members, on actors: choose the play, not the playwright, on intrinsic merit, on genuine quality. All writers have their off-days; let's leave some skeletons in the closet.
Shaw's best works are among the acknowledged glories of the English stage.
But that's no reason to program a disappointment like The Millionairess.
Pictures of AvrilKudos to Stageworks for offering local writer Kim Hanna's La Derniere Grisette at the Tampa Museum last weekend. Angela Bond was delightful as Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril, and Hanna's script efficiently evoked a Bohemian world of dancers and artists. Next work by writer (and my former student) Hanna: Hypoxia Zone, also at Stageworks, in July 2004. I'm already looking forward to it.
Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.