George Bernard Shaw was renowned for his scathing wit, and it seems only natural to expect a comedy about him to be dry, witty and vibrantly verbal. Instead, playwright Mark Saltzman (author of “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” centering on a fictional meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin), has chosen broad, bombastic farce as the base of his new play. “Mr. Shaw,” also deals with fictional exchanges. Shaw visited MGM in March 1933 to discuss selling screen rights for his play “Pygmalion,” and Saltzman invents details of his luncheon there with Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. The problem with this revisionism is too much zany overstatement, which comes across as foreign to Shaw’s erudite spirit. Director Daniel Henning supplies crowd-pleasing laughter to keep the show’s engine racing until Shaw evaporates into a peripheral figure, a marginal excuse for vaudevillian lunacy that lacks dramatic underpinning or a true sense of period.
A basic requirement when placing real-life people in fictitious situations is preserving their fundamental essence as characters. Our introduction to Charlotte Shaw (Mala Powers), in which she sings a gentle a capella duet with husband GBS (Nicolas Coster), has a reassuringly authentic charm.
From here, the story violates this rule and quickly unravels after entering a lush pink bungalow (beautifully designed by Dwight Richard Odle), the custom-built setting erected by Hearst for mistress Marion Davies (Carmen Thomas). Davies is presented as a vulgar, grasping Lina Lamont, determined to wrest the role of Eliza from Norma Shearer if Shaw gives MGM the “Pygmalion” rights.
It’s understandable that director Henning would want to avoid the trouble of re-creating her famous stammer, but Davies was, in the words of Mary Astor, “not acquisitive,” and Hedda Hopper has said Davies had little interest in her career, working only to satisfy Hearst’s relentless ambitions for her. Thomas is a strong, versatile comedian who frequently succeeds in distracting us from the distorted character conception.
Glenn Taranto’s Louis B. Mayer contains a few of the mogul’s familiar traits — his tendency to fake copious tears after being denied his own way, his self-pity when other films (such as “King Kong”) outgrossed Metro releases. Missing is his tough, ruthless shrewdness. When Clark Gable (J. Richey Nash) faces him down and says, “I am the King,” Mayer shrinks under the assault.
Nash is assigned one trait — Gable’s wanton womanizing — without that rough-hewn, he-man persona that made him a box office titan. Steven Gilborn is better as the lovesick 70-year-old Hearst, but lacks the stature of the power-mad newspaper tycoon.
Nicolas Coster’s Shaw, in contrast to his co-stars, is a model of restraint, an approach that works well when Oscar, Marion Davies’ houseboy (Martin G. James) cries “I’m overcome” upon meeting Shaw, and the viper-tongued curmudgeon responds, “Of course you are — it’s an entirely appropriate reaction.” More of these Addison DeWitt-Waldo Lydecker one-liners would have been welcome.
Mala Powers’ Charlotte isn’t forced to compete with a legendary ghost, and her interpretation is lovely and relaxing. She has a memorable scene with Thomas in which the women share confidences about their controlling men. Martin G. Games finds the perfect note of parody as Oscar, displaying a Kevin Kline-like ability to clown and still climb beyond caricature.
All the activity — Davies jumping on top of Gable to shield him from Hearst’s jealous gaze, Davies heaving pearls from a window, John Barrymore (Peter Van Norden) hurling cubes of sugar around the room — can’t disguise the fact that the issues raised are thin, and nothing is at stake. We don’t care if Davies gets to play Eliza, or whether Shaw sells “Pygmalion” to Hollywood.
Final scene, in which he joyously holds up his screenplay Oscar for “Pygmalion,” contrasts sharply with his actual remark, “To offer me this sort of an award is an insult, as if they had never heard of me before.”
The biting nature of that reaction illuminates how totally this treatment trades the wicked Shavian wit for generic slapstick.
Much of it is entertaining, but show’s overall approach misses the opportunity to make Shaw the special and fascinating figure who captivated the world for nearly a century.