×

Major Barbara

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.

With:
Lady Britomart Undershaft - Dana Ivey Stephen Undershaft - Zak Orth Morrison - Denis Holmes Barbara Undershaft - Cherry Jones Sarah Undershaft - Henny Russell Charles Lomax - Rick Holmes Adolphus Cusins - Denis O'Hare Andrew Undershaft - David Warner Rummy Mitchens - Jenny Sterlin Snobby Price - James Gale Jenny Hill - Kelly Hutchinson Peter Shirley - Richard Russell Ramos Bill Walker - David Lansbury Mrs. Baines - Beth Dixon Bilton - Brennan Brown Factory Workers - Eli Gonda, Jeremy Furhman, Jeremy Lewit, Brian Shoaf

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Major Barbara

American Airlines Theater, New York; 733 seats; $65 top

Production: A Roundabout Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Creative: Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; music, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, Roy Harris; dialect coach, Kate Wilson. Artistic director, Todd Haimes. Opened July 12, 2001. Reviewed July 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Lady Britomart Undershaft - Dana Ivey Stephen Undershaft - Zak Orth Morrison - Denis Holmes Barbara Undershaft - Cherry Jones Sarah Undershaft - Henny Russell Charles Lomax - Rick Holmes Adolphus Cusins - Denis O'Hare Andrew Undershaft - David Warner Rummy Mitchens - Jenny Sterlin Snobby Price - James Gale Jenny Hill - Kelly Hutchinson Peter Shirley - Richard Russell Ramos Bill Walker - David Lansbury Mrs. Baines - Beth Dixon Bilton - Brennan Brown Factory Workers - Eli Gonda, Jeremy Furhman, Jeremy Lewit, Brian Shoaf

More Legit

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Closing in March After Box Office Struggles

    “The Inheritance,” a sprawling and ambitious epic that grappled with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, will close on March 15. The two-part play has struggled mightily at the box office despite receiving strong reviews. Last week, it grossed $345,984, or 52% of its capacity, a dispiriting number for a show that was reported to [...]

  • MCC theater presents 'Alice By Heart'

    Steven Sater on Adapting 'Alice by Heart' From a Musical to a Book

    When producers approached lyricist Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”) to adapt Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into a musical, his initial reaction was to recoil. His initial thought was that the book didn’t have a beginning, middle and an ending. But Sater pulled it off with his production of “Alice By Heart.” After an off-Broadway [...]

  • The Lehman Trilogy review

    Sam Mendes' 'Lehman Trilogy' Kicks off Ahmanson's New Season

    Sam Mendes’ “The Lehman Trilogy,” which took London’s West End by storm will be part of the Ahmanson’s lineup for the 2020-21 season. It will be joined by Broadway hits “Hadestown” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Artistic director Michael Ritchie announced the season that will also feature four fan favorites and another production to be [...]

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content