My Astonishing Self Tries Too Hard to Portray Essential Shaw
My Astonishing Self
by Michael Vovsey
starring Donal Donnelly
at the Lyric Stage
through April 17
There is certainly something "not quite right" about taking snippets of some dead and unsuspecting person's writings and cobbling it all together into an interminable monologue.
Attempts to retain a certain pitch of wittiness and verve and flair inevitably result in making the victim--in this case, George Bernard Shaw--come across as a two-dimensional caricature of himself.
Nevertheless, the Lyric Stage's production of My Astonishing Self comes wonderfully close to creating coherent and interesting fare out of a standard retelling of the main events Shaw's career. The play would probably be most entertaining, however, for those who do not know very much about the general life and times of GBS, since Michael Voysey's script and Donal Donnelley's acting will probably not tend gel nicely with a pre-existing mental Shaw.
This not because either the script of My Astonishing Self or the acting are false to the personality of Shaw; rather they try to come too close to some kind o Essential Shaw. Voysey tries to show Shaw's arrogance (note the title of the play) and the humility beneath, the atheism and the vegetarianism, the pacifism and the Fabianism.
We are also shown, predictably, his passion for the actress Ellen Terry and his celibate marriage with Charlotte Paine-Townshend. yet Voysey Cleverly avoids monotony in his presentation of the monologues by depicting Shaw in various different contexts: dealing with an interviewer for an "unauthorized biography," reading his letters aloud to himself or delivering one of his many broadcasts over the radio.
Although Donnelly is charming and personable in My Astonishing Self, the unnecessary slowness of his speech and his habit of darting his eyes around the audience in a nervous fashion are distracting.
The moment when he is truly convincing in his role comes right at the end, when we see Shaw delivering his final broadcast for the BBC, on television. Donnelly's Shaw, old and tremulous, unsure of his words, making a determined effort to keep aging limbs under control, is tremendously moving.
If only Voysey and Donnelly could bring themselves to move beyond the wry witticisms, the characteristic one-liners and the political thunderings of Shaw more than, they could conspire to transform My Astonishing Self into something more profound than a parroting of Shaw.