By: Tim Treanor Fanny’s First Play – WSG
The stage can be a forum for ideas. A socially conscious playwright, if he is clever and sensitive, can use his art to present his solutions to the great social dilemmas of his day. Throughout his lengthy career, George Bernard Shaw exploited that theatrical potential as well as any playwright in history.
So the question confronting producing companies in 2006 is this: is there any reason to stage a ninety-five-year-old Shaw play today? Fanny’s First Play, which was first produced in the same year Ronald Reagan was born, shows Shaw as a cuddly curmudgeon, taking broad potshots at 19th-century British concepts of class and respectability. Does this justify a revival?
The Washington Stage Guild’s earnest, methodical production presents no real answers. It was fitfully amusing, and occasionally illuminating, but the ultimate experience was not different than observing a well-done exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Young Fanny O’Dowda (Jennifer Timberlake) has written a play, and her indulgent father (Bill Largess) has employed not only a company to produce it but an army of critics to review it. Dad, who has acquired a title in the long-defunct Holy Roman Empire, is so retrograde that he passes his leisure time wearing an 18th-century hairpiece and garb. At his daughter’s insistence, he conceals the author’s identity from the critics.
We are thereupon treated to Fanny’s masterpiece, which seems to be a Shaw-influenced comedy of manners in which a young couple (Timberlake and Jason Stiles), in separate incidents, get thrown into the calaboose for disorderly conduct. This horrifies their parents (Largess, with Lynn Steinmetz, and Clark, with Laura Giannarelli), as does their apparent liaisons – Stiles with Cockney fancy girl Dora Delaney (Jessica Frances Dukes) and Timberlake with Monsieur Duvallet (Chris Davenport), a dangerously French lieutenant. Much hilarity ensues, as they say, and Fanny’s play – largely a series of improbably coincidences – ends up with a massive deus ex machina. In the final scene, the critics compare notes – or, more accurately, compare egos – in an effort to evaluate the play and guess its author. This last bit is full of self-referential humor, in which one of the hard-drinking reviewers (Davenport) observes that Shaw couldn’t be the author, since the characters actually sound different from each other and show some emotion.
Well – Shaw may be overstating it a bit. The first Act, consisting of the rather fanciful setup and the first two Acts of Fanny’s play, is a great deal of predictable harrumphing about the outrages which the younger generation visit upon their elders. Shaw trots out his characteristic hobbyhorses. Some of them, such as Fabian Socialism, seem almost exotic, and the references to various thinkers and writers of the time would be obscure without the information Washington Stage Guild helpfully plants in the program and the walls of its lobby. In this Act, the production was competent but uninspired. The actors – particularly the energetic Mr. Largess – seemed distracted when they were not speaking, and never conveyed a sense that they were fully engaged in a common enterprise. The production missed little things, too. “Would you drive me to madness while I am standing here on the carpet?” cried one of the characters, who was plainly standing on a hardwood floor. I must say that many people in the opening-night audience appeared to enjoy this Act, but not everyone: the gentleman sitting to my right dozed off about midway through, and by intermission was snoring gently.
The second Act picked up considerably. It may have been the emergence of three fine young actors – Timberlake, here playing the heroine of Fanny’s play; Glenn, playing a footman with a mysterious history; and Davenport as the aforesaid French lieutenant – in central roles. Or it may have been that Shaw chose to devote the bulk of this Act to a subject as relevant now as it was in his time, or Aristophanes’: passionate love. The triumph of true and honest feeling between men and women over convention, respectability and political correctness satisfies audiences regardless of time or culture, and Shaw portrays this particular triumph, improbable though it is, with great wit and charm. It makes the mock-intellectual discussion which the critics hold in the last scene all the funnier.
At bottom, this production had the feel of a marriage gone stale – faithful and dutiful, but without the passion which can make theatergoing an important experience. The company could benefit from embracing the animating love which Shaw’s young characters had for each other, and using it to illuminate Shaw’s play.
Fanny’s First Play runs on Thursdays through Sundays through April 2 at Washington Stage Guild, 1901 14th Street NW. Thursday evening performances are at 7.30 and Fridays and Saturday s are at 8. Matinees are at 2.30 on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 240.582.0050 or go to www.stageguild.org for tickets.