All right, so what did the first Act of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, now playing at Olney Theatre Center, remind you of? You know the one I mean, where the haughty, father-drunk, self-obsessed millionairess Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga (Julie-Ann Elliot), her husband Alastair Fitzfassenden (James Denvil), a heavyweight boxer but a moral and intellectual lightweight, his tarty mistress Patricia Smith (Tonya Beckman Ross) and Epifania’s gourmand of a gigolo, Adrian Blenderbland (Michael McKenzie) sit in a row facing the solicitor Julius Sagamore (Nick DePinto), whose services they are, for no discernable reason, well, soliciting?
They are full of venom and invective for each other, and they are eager to share it with us. Epifania accuses her husband of catting around with Ms. Smith, who, Epifania assures us, is a “nothing”; moreover, she says, Alastair beats her regularly. Alastair admits to wife abuse but claims it is in self defense, as Epifania is prone to attacking him without provocation. And, for good measure, Alastair points out that Blenderbland doesn’t love Epifania, he loves the meals Epifania serves, which is why he courts her only at dinnertime.
So if you say that this reminds you of The Jerry Springer Show, you and I are on the same page. That is to say, Mr. Shaw, like the erstwhile Mayor of Cincinnati, presents us with a series of disagreeable characters, briefly made vulnerable by the circumstances of their exposure to us, whose unhappiness may give us a bit of good cheer.
Regrettably, Shaw’s characters are in this play even less three-dimensional than the morons and drunks who regularly appear as guests on the Springer show. Alastair seems to exist principally to assure us that Epifania is a shrew and that he is glad to be out of her company. Patricia is in the play, apparently, to pat Alastair’s hand. Blenderbland’s principal function appears to be beaten up by Epifania, and Sagamore, who, implausibly, has apparently been engaged to represent each of the four combatants, is little more than a master of ceremonies.
This leaves the focus on Epifania, whose outlandish story is that her late father, whom she deifies at every opportunity, left her thirty million pounds and the injunction not to marry anyone who could not turn a hundred fifty pounds into fifty thousand in six months. The dim Alastair, by using the proceeds of a check-kiting scheme to back a hit play, manages to pass her test, and as she is also attracted to his body she marries him. This turns out to be a huge mistake, as she explains over and over again throughout the play.
This does not prevent her from presenting the same proposition to an attractive Egyptian doctor (Paul Morella), who shows up when Epifania falls into a fugue of self-victimization after beating up Blenderbland. The doctor, who concludes every description of every mildly interesting event by saying “praise be to Allah, the all-merciful”, is another Shavian stereotype; a sort of anti-millionairess who voluntarily lives in poverty so that he can devote himself to relieving the suffering of others. This, of course, makes him irresistible to Epifania, who longs to corrupt him as the salmon longs to swim upstream.
More nonsense ensues, the upshot of which is that Epifania exhibits a gift for wringing profit out of unlikely situations. In so doing, she further alienates the characters except for solicitor Sagamore, who appreciates her ability to pay his fees. But she does eventually win over the doctor, by…ah, I can’t tell you. It’s not that it would give away the story. It’s that it’s too ridiculous.
This production is, frankly, a waste of good actors, particularly Morella and Ross, who have done superb work handling more complex characters in other plays. Denvil looks the part of a heavyweight boxer; his tall, rangy build somewhat resembles that of world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko (who, by coincidence, I saw dispatch overmatched challenger Ruslan Chagaev in nine rounds immediately before the show) but Dr. Steelhammer, who speaks four languages and holds a PhD in Physical Education, is a much more interesting character than poor dull Alastair.
Elliot is a bit of a disappointment as Epifania. She is properly despicable, but her diction is so overprecise that it looks as if she is acting, which, as you know, is toxic for an actor.
The show is not without its pleasures. It is a handsomely mounted production, which takes full advantage of Olney’s rotating stage. (James Wolk is the scenic designer.) The costumes (Liz Covey) work. John Dow and Cherie Weinert are genuinely affecting in a scene at a sweat shop, and Elliot does good work in that scene too.
But none of these things address the fundamental question of all theater, which is Why Are We Here? In his preface to the play, which Olney excerpts in the program, Shaw said “What is to be done with that section of the possessors of specific talents whose talent is for money-making? History and daily experience teach us that if the world does not devise some plan of ruling them, they will rule the world…They are irresistible unless they are restrained by law; for ordinary individuals are helpless in their hands.”
Well, you can’t prove it from this play. The highly resistible Alastair made fifty large through check-kiting and play staging, and Epifania’s supposedly brilliant business moves (one of which involved changing the décor of a pub which had remained frozen in time since the days of William the Conqueror) would also occur to most first-year b-school students. This hardly makes them so fearsome as to require the protection of the law.
Look. Shaw was a great writer, but that doesn’t mean that everything he wrote still stands up. Shakespeare was the greatest writer in the English (or any other) language, but no one does Timon of Athens any more. Even Holy Scripture has the Book of Numbers along with the Book of Job and the Gospel of St. John. There are some Shaw plays, such as Heartbreak House and Major Barbara, which deserve to be celebrated. There are some which deserve to be put to rest. The Millionairess falls into the latter category.
by George Bernard Shaw
directed by John Going
produced by Olney Theatre Center
reviewed by Tim Treanor