“Engaging Shaw” is exactly that. John Mortimer Langdon’s romantic comedy, presented by the New Jersey Rep, finds a determined Charlotte Payne-Townshend, acted with stately reserve by Katrina Ferguson, in hot pursuit of 39-year-old confirmed bachelor George Bernard Shaw. The result is a spirited and intelligent combat of words and sparkling banter.
Shaw, superbly played by Ames Adamson, is as entertaining as he is infuriating, and a dreadful philanderer to boot. He has avoided romantic relationships, steadfastly maintaining he has a genius for hurting women. He also treasures the liberty and happiness of his bachelorhood.
Payne-Townshend, who is described as a “large, graceful woman,” and who at moments appears to be plain, “approaches beauty in evening dress.” Independently wealthy, she offers to be Shaw’s secretary, sans salary, but secretly harbors a methodical plan to woo and wed him, despite the playwright’s fixation with many lady friends, including his all-consuming daily correspondence with celebrated actress Ellen Terry.
There is a brief but beautifully structured moment at the end of the first act as Payne-Townshend subtly seduces the feisty Shaw. The second half serves as an intellectual cat-and-mouse courtship.
The rusty bearded Adamson, a frequent player on the Long Branch stage, provides an expansive, feisty account of the Irish dramatist and witty socialist that is both blustery and warmly accessible. His cheeks hurt when he smiles, and he explodes with fury at the thought of marriage, but Adamson keenly invests Shaw with a deep-harbored affection for the woman who has become his intellectual equal.
Ferguson, who originated the role of Charlotte in Vermont’s 2006 Oldcastle Theater production, offers a cool, well-modulated performance in nice contrast to Shaw’s often explosive temper.
Helen Mutch lends stable support as Beatrice Webb, whom Payne-Townshend sees as a questionable romantic rival, but Marc Geller as Webb’s encyclopedic ninny of a husband is a tad too arch, with his clipped cockney accent and pince-nez spectacles.
Shaw finds his associate “the greatest mind in all England, though lacking in vinegar,” but Langdon Brown has directed Geller as an annoying, foolish twit.
However, Brown has paced the piece effectively on the small stage. Peppered with accessible excerpts from Shaw’s works and letters, the play is set in a small English cottage at Stratford, functionally void of clutter. Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes comfortably reflect the smart fashions of the late 19th century.