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Theater Review: Missives between Shaw and his Muse

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

DEAR LIAR, by Jerome Kilty. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Featuring Marian Seldes and Donal Donnelly. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St. Open-ended run.

Oh, how they would have loved e-mail! From 1899, when Dublin-born music critic and, eventually, playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote a note to British stage star Mrs. Patrick Campbell inviting her for a weekend in the English countryside, until 1940, when the actress died in the south of France, the letters they wrote each other flew thick and fast, allowing for the occasional spat-inspired silence and, astonishingly, one period of 16 months in which the writer, deeply angered by the performer’s having published portions of the correspondence, there were no letters at all.

Were Shaw and Mrs. Campbell lovers in the conventional sense of the word? Almost certainly not, since Shaw’s marriage, to the Irish heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, is generally thought to have been left unconsummated.

Shaw, who wrote many of the greatest parts ever written for women in the century, appears to have been terrified by woman in her fullness, leaving most of his sex in his head and in his manuscripts, which, in terms of posterity, is probably all to the good.

Around 1958, the American actor Jerome Kilty made an arrangement of the Shaw-Campbell letters, calling it "Dear Liar," a term the actress once applied to the writer.

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Kilty’s goal, at least partly, was to provide himself and his then-wife, Cavada Humphrey, with a platform piece they could do virtually whenever and wherever they wanted to.

As things worked out, however, Kilty caught a couple of imposing theatrical fish, Katharine Cornell and Brian Aherne, who played "Dear Liar" for a healthy Broadway run starting on March 17, 1960, following up with an extensive national tour.

Now, Kilty’s carpentry is on view again, in an exquisitely mounted and beautifully performed revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre, with Marian Seldes as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Donal Donnelly as G.B.S.

Between his own one-man Shaw show, "My Astonishing Self," written in collaboration with Michael Voysey, and his previous appearance in "Dear Liar," Donnelly seems almost to have logged in as much time "being" George Bernard Shaw as the red-bearded writer himself did.

Actress Seldes, however, is new to the material, and, for that matter, to the Irish Repertory Theatre itself, since the current production, which has already been extended beyond its scheduled Aug. 29 closing date, represents her debut on West 32nd Street.

Seldes has a particularly close tie to the material, however, since, as a young actress, she was something of a protege of Katharine Cornell, and appeared with her onstage on several occasions, including Christopher Fry’s "The Dark is Light Enough."

The new version of "Dear Liar" fits handily into the Irish Rep’s sometimes troublesome realities, with its small playing area and its bifurcated audience area.

David Raphel’s slightly schizoid set design subtly, almost imperceptibly, provides a perfect playing area for each star, a book-lined, deep green library with an oak lectern for Donnelly, and a graceful, ivory-toned sitting room, complete with mantle, fireplace and oil portrait for Seldes.

Except for brief scenes recreating rehearsal situations, "Shaw" and "Mrs. Campbell" never really intrude very deeply into one another’s playing areas, with Donnelly "reading" at his lectern, while Seldes, who is, after all, an extroverted actress recreating a notoriously flamboyant colleague from another era, roams her territory like a caged panther, perching briefly on a chaise, then moving to the curtained window and then to the graceful fireplace, over which hangs a portrait not of the Edwardian star, but, rather, of her beloved mother.

"Dear Liar" is, to be sure, a play of letters, which requires, perforce, that its stars must appear to be reading to us from letters which, as performers, they have long since committed to memory. When "Shaw" is "reading," "Mrs. Campbell" must appear to be reading, as opposed to merely listening, as the audience is. It’s a tricky proposition, and both Seldes and Donnelly, seasoned veterans that they are, handle it brilliantly and with grace to spare.

Much credit is due director Charlotte Moore, who has managed to inject a good degree of viable life and genuine energy into what could easily have come over as static, even stagnant, material.

Beatrice Stella Campbell, a holdover from the days when women used their husbands’ names for their professional lives, had been widowed by the time Shaw wrote that first note offering a weekend away from London. She had been a working actress for a decade and a star for about seven years, since she appeared in Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," a play for which Shaw had little respect.

Shaw, when he first wrote Mrs. Campbell, had completed a few plays, including "Widowers’ Houses," "The Philanderer," "Mrs. Warren’s Profession," and "Candida," but couldn’t be ranked as a particularly successful playwright, and was, in fact, better known as a journalist and critic.

Mrs. Campbell’s Christian names were Beatrice and Stella, and almost from the outset, Shaw called her "Stella," while she referred to him, with sizable measures of both humor and affection, as "Joey," after a popular circus clown of the day.

Mrs. Campbell was part Italian, which probably accounts for the olive skin and dark beauty so evident in early photographs of the actress.

Whether or not the Shaw-Campbell relationship had its physical aspects, it did muster sufficient ardor of an intellectual variety to make Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, jealous enough to try to drive a wedge between the star and the writer. When Mrs. Campbell married George Cornwallis-West, she did so in secret, probably to avoid Shaw’s wrath and recriminations.

Mrs. Campbell inspired several Shavian heroines, including Hesione of the great "Heartbreak House," and Orinthia of the somewhat less wonderful comedy "The Apple Cart," not to mention the Serpent in "Back to Methuselah," but the playwright only wrote one role expressly for her to play, namely Eliza Dolittle, the teen-aged Cockney flower-seller of what is probably Shaw’s greatest play, "Pygmalion."

When "Pygmalion," which, of course, eventually gave birth to "My Fair Lady," had its London debut, Mrs. Campbell was 49, and, she admitted candidly, unable to cope successfully with the required dialect. The year was 1914, and when World War I came crashing down on Britain, Mrs. Patrick Campbell sensibly did what stars did in those days when things got rough in London; she took the play on an American tour, where, she complained, none had the slightest idea how to pronounce the title.

Much of "Dear Liar" is familiar anecdotal material, from Shaw’s moving description of his mother’s cremation to Mrs. Campbell’s celebrated ire at being accused of inaudibility in large theaters, but all of it, serious and comic alike, is rendered with wit and elegance by Donnelly and Seldes, the latter fresh from her Tony-nominated performance in Broadway’s revival of Jean Anoulith’s "Ring Around the Moon," here looking absolutely spectacular in the costumes provided by David Toser. This is a shining hour for the Irish Repertory Theatre.

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