By Joseph Hurley
DON JUAN IN HELL by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Starring Fritz Weaver, Donal Donnelly, Celeste Holm and James A. Stevens. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through Sunday, Sept. 17.
The underworld, at least as depicted in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s intelligent, scrupulous and sporadically sparkling late summer revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell,” is a cosy sort of place, done in tones of rose, with only the deep red glow beyond the mullioned windows projected on the backdrop to suggest the fires traditionally thought to be raging there.
What the Irish Rep has served up, as a sort of pre-Labor Day picnic for its audiences and for the actors involved, is, of course, what the late critic John Mason Brown called “a detachable dream sequence” the impish Shaw had tucked into the third act of his comedic 1903 battle-of-the-sexes, “Man and Superman.”
Tucked it may have been, but not securely, since most of the time, when “Man and Superman” is produced, the 90-minute “hell scene” is cut, since, with it, the Shavian romance of John Tanner and Ann Whitefield makes for an extremely cumbersome and lengthy evening.
“Don Juan in Hell” really came into its own in the early 1950s, when an acting ensemble, created for the occasion and dubbed The First Drama Quartette, toured it triumphantly for several seasons, with the starry company composed of Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorehead and Cedric Hardwicke dressed in formal attire and standing behind music stands, pretending to “read” the master’s witty and complicated text.
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Now, in a rare and valuable revival staged by the Irish Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, the actors are seated and go through the text from start to finish, eschewing the intermission, which Laughton, who directed the first time around, inserted, ostensibly to give everyone involved, onstage and off, a bit of a breather.
Seated or standing, a brief intermission might not be such a bad idea, since 90-plus minutes of Shaw at his most self-indulgently verbose, albeit at his wittiest most of the time, cannot fail to become a tad wearying.
Fortunately for the present endeavor, the cast the Rep has rounded up is pretty much fully up to the task, handling things with grace, wit and invention. As Lucifer, Beelzebub, call him what you will, the role played half a century ago by Laughton, Donal Donnelly brings a keen intelligence to the argument the Dublin-born dramatist has created for the Devil.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Donnelly has somehow managed to avoid the potential pitfall of giving off the Shavian resonances that could all too easily suggest that the author himself were playing the part.
As Dona Ana, Celeste Holm appears in a dazzling cloud of orange chiffon and deftly states the case for womanhood.
As the Statue, who in life had been Ana’s father, the role played earlier by Hardwicke, the capable James A. Stevens perhaps suffers a bit from being somewhat too young for the part, and, even more, from being the one member of the cast not instantaneously familiar to the audience.
The hero of the evening, by any measure, is Fritz Weaver as the rueful amatory adventurer Don Juan, a role in which the memory of the great Boyer would seem to remain beyond erasure. While hardly eradicating the stamp the great French film actor put on the part, Weaver makes Don Juan uniquely his own.
Possessor of one of the richest and most flexible vocal instruments in the contemporary theater, Weaver deftly mines the subtleties and ironies of the humanistic point of view with which Shaw has equipped the world-weary seducer. By engaging in a rare and creative form of actor-author collaboration, this fine performer comes up with a characterization of unusual depth and detail, all the more surprising, in fact, to encounter in a staging that, good as it is, doesn’t pretend to be a full production.
One minor problem that will almost certainly resolve itself with a few more performances is linked to the difference between actors pretending to read a manuscript on music stands before them, and actors actually having to refer to the text, even occasionally. In the preview performances, it was evident that this particular quartette, adroit as its individual members are, hadn’t entirely learned Shaw’s lines. The result was a kind of diminished interaction and a somewhat lessened fullness and generosity in terms of dealing with the audience.
Indeed, in time, Dona Anna, the Statue and the Devil will rise to the level already reached by Don Juan as rendered by the unfailingly remarkable Weaver.
Donnelly is very nearly there already, with no little assistance from his suitably devilish vest of red brocade and, even more so, by his flaming scarlet socks.
As director, Moore has once again displayed the insight with which she penetrates a text, and the respect she unfailingly shows the intentions of the author with whose material she is dealing.
As it ripens and adds subtlety, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s already valuable and enjoyable mounting of George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell” will soon reach a point it will fully qualify as one of the more delightful surprises this invaluable organization has pulled out of its bag of tricks.
Now that they’ve tackled the thorny “hell scene,” why not “Man and Superman” itself?