FOR A WRITER ONCE generally hailed as "the greatest playwright since Shakespeare," George Bernard Shaw has fared poorly with most audiences since his death. His masterpiece Pygmalion has had an afterlife of sorts as the musical My Fair Lady, and such plays as Saint Joan and Arms and the Man receive respectful revivals. But it's generally held that for all his wit and comedic energy, his writing is somehow mechanical and relentless, the work of a man Yeats described as "a sewing machine that smiled and smiled."
Intiman Theater till November 20
The irremediable G.B.S. himself certainly had passion, as Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty's play adapted from Shaw's correspondence with the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, makes clear. Shaw first wrote to her in 1899 with a request for a visit; he sought to cast her in his just-completed Caesar and Cleopatra. She was one of the reigning stars of the day, a beautiful and intelligent woman whom Shaw called "an enchantress," and after their first face-to-face meeting some years later, he declared himself entirely in love with her, his wife notwithstanding.
During the next 40 years, a period in which Shaw was to rise to preeminence as a playwright and Campbell was to watch her career falter and die, they were to carry on a vigorous, yet entirely unconsummated, romance. They did manage, however, one glorious collaboration, when in 1914 she finally performed the role that he had written for her: the flower girl Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. That she was 49 and by her own admission did an awful Cockney accent makes her undeniable triumph all the more astonishing.
The delightful performance by Larry Ballard as Shaw, which one suspects is far more lively and appealing than the great man probably ever managed in life, and Sally Smythe's grande dame appeal as the formidable yet tenderhearted Campbell make one almost believe that a happier ending was possible for what was an impossible romance. "You have awakened the latent tragedy in me," Shaw announced when abandoned by his inamorata for another man. For once, there seems to be a sincerity behind his dexterous wordsmithing. As for Campbell, she was clearly moved by some of the most exquisite love letters ever written. "If I could write like you, I would write letters to God," she replied, seemingly unaware that her own missives were his passionate match. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this unlikely affair was that such transcendent emotion rarely made its way, via the Shavian wit, onto the stage.