Does gunpowder have an expiration date? The literary equivalent doesn’t seem to: As it closes in on the century mark, George Bernard Shaw’s genteel firebomb of a play, “Major Barbara,” retains an amazing degree of force. The Roundabout Theater Co., the gallant keeper of the Shavian flame in Gotham for some time, harnesses a creditable amount of the play’s intellectual — and comic — dynamite in its nicely upholstered Broadway revival of Shaw’s 1905 masterwork.
Shaw’s dense dialectical comedies don’t stand up well under excessive directorial tinkering — witness Roger Rees’ shrill evisceration of “Arms and the Man” two seasons back — and director Daniel Sullivan wisely lets the ideas of the playwright, as delivered by a mostly excellent cast, hold the stage. The writing is merely given a pretty gilt frame, epitomized by the splendid costumes of Jane Greenwood and sets by John Lee Beatty that are models of Broadway polish and professionalism.
Among the most savory pleasures of the production is the delectable performance of Dana Ivey as Lady Britomart Undershaft, the estranged wife of the armaments tycoon with a peculiar ancestry. There are echoes of Wilde in the play’s talk of foundlings and in Lady Undershaft’s supremely imperious manner, and Ivey’s lyrically calibrated line readings are very much redolent of Wilde’s great Lady Bracknell.
More comic filigree is provided by Rick Holmes’ enthusiastically dim Charles Lomax, fiance of one of the three Undershaft children whose financial maintenance by their father occasions the great intellectual debate at the heart of the play. Charles is affianced to Sarah (a fine Henny Russell), sister of the lone Undershaft son, Stephen, who turns up his nose — rather too emphatically in Zak Orth’s somewhat overripe turn — at the distasteful idea of taking over dad’s arms business.
The third Undershaft child is, of course, the play’s title character, the impassioned major in the Salvation Army who challenges her father to a sort of moral duel: She believes she can convert him to the good work of Christian charity by exposing him to the sufferings of the poor that are assuaged at her shelter. He accepts the challenge on the condition that she allow him to persuade her of the ultimately greater good of his bloody business.
Although many a comforting piety fell by the wayside in the course of the bloody 20th century, there remains something shocking in the way Shaw deftly and delightedly exposes the hypocrisies in the business of Christian good-doing in the crackling comic scene at the shelter (Jenny Sterlin, James Gale and particularly David Lansbury are all superb as the representatives of the lower orders).
Cherry Jones, ideally suited to the role of Major Barbara, registers a touching, pained shock at the conclusion of act one, when she is made to realize that the buying of souls for a piece of bread is a transaction like any other, and one that can’t even be effected without the support of money earned, as she sees it, in immoral pursuits (booze and guns). The life drains from her naturally beaming face; a heaviness seems to come into her limbs.
When the debate moves to the somewhat unrealistically Utopian Undershaft factory town, it is taken up primarily by Barbara’s fiance, Adolphus Cusins, the Greek professor whose belief in the importance of salvation was a mere mask for his infatuation with Barbara. The ever-dependable Denis O’Hare puts his own impish comic stamp on the role as he is gradually won over to the idea that souls are healthy only when bodies are, and there’s no biz like the arms biz.
As espoused by the understated Undershaft of David Warner, these views do not receive the kind of charismatic trumpeting that can deliver the audience right into his hands. Warner gives a solid and intelligent performance but doesn’t command the stage the way Undershaft can. Maybe that’s as it should be. Shaw was writing before Europe was decimated by decades of bloody warfare, and the amorality of this arms merchant leaves us even more queasy today than presumably it did audiences in 1905; Warner subtly inflects his performance with a touch of existential doubt, and his familiarity as a movie villain may be a sly piece of casting intended to undermine the apparent power of his opinions.
For all the forcefulness of his ideas, Shaw in “Major Barbara” did not make the mistake of writing a neat propaganda play — its sustaining interest lies not in prescribing solutions but in raising difficult questions. The point, above all, was to clear away cant and acknowledge the folly of living by devised moral codes that don’t accord with the truth of human behavior.
Barbara’s alive to the difference by the final curtain. The dormant blood in Jones’ Barbara is clearly flowing again: The shine in her eyes and the husky firmness in her voice signal the bedazzled awe of a woman who is finally engaging not with a manufactured idea of the world but with the world itself.