THEATER REVIEW: “Engaging Shaw” is a terrific show at Old Globe

Watching four extremely verbal and highly intelligent characters discuss politics and personal relationships with cleverness and wit is my idea of theatrical heaven. So forgive me if I wax ecstatic about John Morogiello’s delightful “Engaging Shaw.”

Henry Wishcamper directs a terrific cast in the show’s West Coast premiere through Sept. 4 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre. The play will receive its European premiere at Vienna’s English Theatre next spring.

One of the quartet is that well-known curmudgeon and iconoclast George Bernard Shaw, who manages to be a successful ladies’ man despite also being a vegetarian, teetotaling, egotistical, anti-marriage, anti-sex socialist.

I’m not sure whether that says more about women or about Shaw, but in any case Morogiello lets us look in as the irascible but sometimes charming Shaw (Rod Brogan) meets his match in one Charlotte Payne-Townshend (Angela Pierce).

The year is 1896; the place, the country home of dedicated Fabian socialists Sidney (Michael Warner) and Beatrice Webb (Natalie Gold). Beatrice, also an indefatigable matchmaker, interrupts Sidney’s pontification about socialist theory for a more important topic: the nice artist she means to introduce to their friend Shaw.

But it’s too late: he’s already met Miss Townshend by inadvertently running her into a ditch on her bicycle.

Charlotte, as it happens, is a wealthy heiress, and Beatrice had someone else in mind for her. But Beatrice does want Shaw to chat her up nicely and get her to contribute to the Webbs’ latest effort, the founding of the London School of Economics.

The verbal sparring begins immediately, and Shaw will find that not only is Charlotte enlightened (she can afford to be) and Irish (Shaw is a Dubliner), but also has opinions as definite and fixed as his own.

They agree about one thing: marriage. They’re both agin it – loudly, insistently and repeatedly. Shaw puts it this way: “Mrs. Webb has an amusing notion that the best cure for freedom is slavery.”

Charlotte agrees, though this nice 40-something Victorian virgin can’t resist pestering Shaw for details about the one sexual experience he admits to. And she eventually changes her mind about marriage and enlists Beatrice’s help in her campaign.

Step one is that Charlotte becomes his secretary, typing his rants and plays and essays.

Brogan and Pierce prove formidable acting colleagues and debating adversaries as they bring this relationship (based largely on Shaw’s letters) to life. My only quibble is that both suffer from peekaboo Irish accents.

Warner is excellent as the political man par excellence, amused and a little put off by his equally committed wife’s apparent need to dabble in the emotional lives of their friends.

Gold is equally fine and especially effective in the scene in which she tells Sidney he’s out of his league when women get together to talk relationships.

This is a handsome production, anchored by Wilson Chin’s book-crammed in-the-round set design and Alejo Vietti’s lovely costume design, especially for the women. Matthew Richards’ lighting and Paul Peterson’s sound design complete the excellent team.

I’ll leave you to find out whether Charlotte bags her man. Rest assured that this theatrical journey is one of the most delightful you will have this season.

The details

“Engaging Shaw” plays through Sept. 4 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.