“The Devil’s Disciple” is one of George Bernard Shaw’s most deceptively simple plays. Structurally, it’s pure melodrama, with a plot built around mistaken identities and last-minute reversals. Beneath that conventional surface, however, there’s a sharp criticism of religious zealotry. The Irish Repertory Theater’s production has glimmers of both the high and lowbrow, but an overall shapelessness keeps it from firmly articulating either.
The show could solidify once the cast settles into their roles, but at present, most are hesitant about their character choices. Director Tony Walton — who also designs sets and costumes — is equally tentative. He gives scenes moments of fierce energy but then backs away, moving actors far apart from each other or inserting awkward comic bits.
If anything, Shaw’s script demands conviction. Set in New Hampshire in 1777, it bristles with threats and declamations. America is at war with the British, and the redcoats wants to hang local minister Anthony Anderson (Curzon Dobell) in order to demoralize the townfolk.
But war is arguably just a backdrop for a more vicious battle of faith. On one hand, there are Puritans, represented by the minister and by elderly, pious Mrs. Dudgeon (Darcy Pulliam). On the other, there’s Mrs. Dudgeon’s son Dick (Lorenzo Pisoni), who has become a local monster by aligning himself with the Devil. His reason: Puritanical Christians are so judgmental and unloving that the Devil, their greatest enemy, must be their spiritual opposite.
Crucially, Shaw makes Dick his hero. When the British come for the minister, the Devil’s Disciple pretends to be the wanted man, making him the most selfless character in the play. His choices keep driving the plot — involving onstage fighting, a damsel in distress and a surprising revelation from Anderson — which means we constantly see a heretic bettering his society. Since Dick’s morality emerges through action as much as words, his attack on hypocrisy is even more authentic.
Or at least it would be, if Pisoni weren’t so wan. His half-hearted work almost destroys Dick’s brio.
At least things pick up when the British arrive. As a jingoistic soldier, Robert Sedgwick has a comic bluster that’s organic to the play (as opposed to the broad slapstick employed by some of his castmates). Sedgwick’s perf also balances the gentlemanly cool of John Windsor-Cunningham, playing British General Burgoyne. The general is classically Shavian, both amused and annoyed by the foolishness he sees all around him, and Windsor-Cunningham makes his judgments deliciously dry.
Walton’s set resembles the weaker perfs. Mostly, it’s just large, white walls, which wash out the actors and make the stage look unfinished. That sparseness might be believable in a real Puritan world, but it contradicts the vigor of Shaw’s language. And ultimately, the walls exist only so Walton can project silhouettes of a crowd on them during an outdoor scene. It’s a nice effect, but not worth two acts of blandness.
In his program note, Walton apologizes at length for not being able to fill the stage with extras playing soldiers and townspeople, and his insecurity may explain why he molds his entire design around the image of a crowd he can’t actually produce. But the play isn’t about supernumeraries. A small, sharp production is all that’s needed to make it feel massive.