Widowers’ Houses – An 1800s Moral Quandary That Resonates Still
People who live in glass houses have no right to throw stones. But, on my honor, I never knew that my house was a glass one until you pointed it out. Dr. Harry Trench (in the play)
Having just finished his medical boards, young Dr. Harry Trench (Jeremy Beck) is traveling abroad with his somewhat older friend, the flamboyant, yet rather proper William De Burgh Cokane, aka Billy (Jonathan Hadley). On the boat to Remagen on the Rhine and again at a hotel, they meet gentleman/businessman Sartorious (Terry Layman) and his pretty daughter Blanche (Talene Monahon). For the benefit of her father, Billy loudly extols Harry’s eligibility as a well born (if not wealthy) husband with great prospects.
Jonathan Hadley and Jeremy Beck
We quickly learn that the couple has already connected and that the café encounter is a set up. Harry is smitten. Blanche is not only willing, but immediately takes a Machiavellian lead. Her father, who knows more than he lets on, is in favor, but stipulates that the suitor’s family must first prove welcoming. Letters are sent and received.
Talene Monahon and Jeremy Beck
Back in London, Harry and his wingman arrive at Sartorious’s home to formalize the liaison. Here, they accidently meet the gentleman’s abused rent collector/building manager Lickcheese (John Plumpis), who, having just been fired for trying to keep his boss’s tenements in necessary repair, pleads his case before the two strangers. Sartorious, it seems, is a slum landlord of the worst, most greedy and unfeeling kind.
Harry is appalled. Unwilling to give up his suit and without telling her what he’s learned, he insists that Blanche and he live on his modest income rather than accepting substantial funds from her father. Accustomed to the best, she refuses, assuming her intended is using the precondition as an excuse to break off their engagement. To say she goes ballistic is putting it mildly. Sartorious’s explanation to Harry (and a more pragmatic Billy) is blatantly class prejudiced, indifferent, and, as Shaw presents it, realistic.
Jonathan Hadley and John Plumpis
When the clever Lickcheese’s fortunes change, he returns to offer a deal to the other three men. Harry discovers he’s unwittingly tied to Sartorious’s real estate empire and must decide whether to join what is a legal but, at root, morally reprehensible scheme, accepting a tainted income. Blanche would come with the package. We learn part of his decision.
The quandary is easily updated to decisions made by contemporary businessmen every day.
This is George Bernard Shaw’s first produced play (1892), but already shows great facility with characterization, language, exploration of the battle of the sexes, and abiding interest in social issues and politics. It’s both entertaining and intriguing.
Jeremy Beck, Talene Monahon, Jonathan Hadley, Terry Layman, John Plumpis, Hanna Creek
The most compelling actors on stage are Jonathan Hadley as William De Burgh Cockane and John Plumpis as Lickcheese. Hadley manages to walk a fine line between over the top and pitch perfect exaggeration, his every phrase and gesture expressing a wholly developed persona. When not actively attempting to draw attention, Billy is nonetheless visibly preparing; when he’s admonished, he elegantly sulks. Plumpis (who looks startlingly like Charles Chaplin), offers first a desperate toady and then a cheeky arriviste, each incarnation with its own set of viable emotions and mannerisms, both completely real. An excellent Cockney accent illuminates.
Talene Monahon (Blanche) works strictly from the surface at all times and is feasible only at the very start of the play. Jeremy Beck’s (Harry) switches from excessive, youthful exuberance to newfound gravitas without visible evolution.
As the Founding Artistic Director of Gingold Theatrical Group, Director David Staller lives and breathes George Bernard Shaw. Much of this production therefore feels authentic. In particular, Billy (William), though florid, appears to be at the same time, of the period, amusing, and irritating and Lickcheese’s change of station is adroitly reflected in his manner.
I have a rather large caveat, however: Blanche is portrayed as so unnecessarily vitriolic/histrionic, it’s impossible to believe Harry would even consider the relationship. Fury can be depicted without hitting, screaming, and flailing. This woman is supposed to be insidiously controlling, not an obvious harridan. Where is her place in the choice around which the play revolves if she’s not for a moment a credible option?
Set Design by Brian Prather is clever, spare and elegant.
Barbara A. Bell’s Costume Design is flattering and evocative, but Blanche’s parading around her home in copious jewelry – including a tiara – is ludicrous.
Photos by Marielle Solan
Opening: Jeremy Beck
TACT and The Gingold Theatrical Group present
Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by David Staller
The Beckett Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Though April 2, 2016