Review by Beatrice Williams-Rude
Productions at The Pearl are usually lustrous; George Bernard Shaw dazzles on his own, but in the hands of David Staller blazes even more brightly. So what happens when these elements coalesce? An incandescent offering that’s as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, as informative as it is humorous. “Major Barbara” is among Shaw’s masterpieces and The Pearl does it proud.
In this play GBS proves Milton’s observation that the devil is more interesting than God. Andrew Undershaft is the embodiment of evil, a multimillionaire arms manufacturer who buys governments, and anything else he chooses. Insightfully portrayed by Dan Daily, this is a character on whom our attention is riveted, a charming scoundrel, a “Mephistopheles,” a “Machiavelli.” Or is he?
His adversary is his wife, Lady Britomart Undershaft, the embodiment of hypocrisy, who is hilariously played by Carol Schultz. These two are the polar opposites, the pillars: Undershaft, whose company motto is “Unashamed,” and Lady Undershaft, who arrogantly poses as a moralist yet has no compunctions about living off what she considers her husband’s ill-gotten gains.
An ingenious casting device has Carol Schultz doubling as Lady Britomart and Mrs. Baines, a Salvation Army General, showing the two women as being but opposite sides of the same coin. There is other doubling that furthers Shaw’s theme that but for the accident of birth, one could be living the life of the other.
Undershaft wants the one thing he can’t buy: his daughter Barbara’s affection and respect. But he can win by default, by showing her that her world is as corrupt as his, by “buying” the Salvation Army. He then shows Barbara, nicely played by Hannah Cabell, and members of his family as well as would-be members, his munitions village. The workers are well paid, there is beautiful housing and grounds, schools, medical facilities, even a “William Morris Labour Church—no “Satanic mills” here. Rather more like something an idealist like Robert Owen would envision.
The righteous moralists, led by Lady Britomart Undershaft and seemingly abetted by son Stephen, are appalled and accuse Undershaft of wasting money and “weakening the workers’ sense of responsibility.” Undershaft replies, “… when you are organizing civilization you have to make up your mind whether trouble and anxiety are good things or not. However, a sufficient dose of anxiety is always provided by the fact that we may be blown to smithereens at any moment.”
Shaw has great fun with “Major Barbara,” pitting the military–industrial complex against organized religion. He introduces us to Peter Shirley, a hard-working idealistic man who looks older than his age, having been overworked for most of his life, and has now been fired because his employer thinks him too old, even though his work has not suffered. His circumstances are in contrast to those of the men who work in the munitions plant of Andrew Undershaft, highlighting the question of “who is moral?” He tells Barbara that he saved her soul—as he saved the souls of his workers, saved them from the seven deadly sins: food, clothing, heat, rent, taxes, respectability and children. Nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted. “I enabled Barbara to become Major Barbara, and I saved her from the crime of poverty. … The worst of crimes….Only fools fear crime; we all fear poverty.”
Among the bon mots: Undershaft notes that when someone knows nothing but thinks he knows everything, a political career is in order.
This splendid production was admirably directed by David Staller. In addition to the elegant Dan Daily as Andrew Undershaft and stalwart Carol Schultz as Lady Britomart Undershaft and General (Mrs.) Baines; Richard Gallagher is a delight as Adolphus Cusins, the professor of Greek literature and philosophy, who only joined the Salvation Army because of his love for Barbara (Hannah Cabell). Other cast members nimbly handling multiple roles are Becky Baumwell, as Sarah Undershaft and who is particularly appealing Jenny Hill; Alex Shaw as Stephen Undershaft and Snobby Price; Cary Donaldson as Charles Lomax and Bill Walker; Bradford Cover as Morrison, Peter Shirley and Bilton; and Robin Leslie Brown as Lady Briomart’s maid, Rummy Mitchens, and Andrew Undershaft’s assistant.
Run, don’t walk, to get tickets for this delightful exercise where conscience meets funny-bone.
“Major Barbara” will be at The Pearl Theatre through Dec. 14: 555 West 42nd Street, NYC 10036, firstname.lastname@example.org