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DIVIDING Bernard Shaw's productive life into periods can be no end of fun. There being close on 70 years to deal with, from 1880 to 1950, many and subtle distinctions are called for. The "late" plays, for instance, those written between Shaw's 70th and 85th birthdays, are not to be confused with the "dotages," those written after the Second World War. The Millionairess belongs to the former category, but in no way begs comparison with the body of other works written by men of 80. It is a first-class high comedy, as funny as anything Shaw ever wrote, which means as funny as anything anyone ever wrote. And the Charles Playhouse has done it up proud.
Proud, but not too proud. Several of the actors don't move any too well, several don't speak any too well. As Epifania--the millionairess--Barbara Caruso is merely and barely competent. As Alistair--her husband--Peter Coffeen has a problem one usually connects with undergraduates: except when speaking dialogue, he stands stiff with his hands at his sides. But someone, presumably director Philip Minor, saw the wisdom of giving Mr. Coffeen a pipe for his later appearances.
The scenery, by Richard W. Kerry, mixes dash and economy in a proportion certain Harvard designers, particularly those faced with shoestring budgets, ought to emulate. To Kerry's further credit, he has given his sets a faintly futuresque motif. One can admire this without buying the companion notion, voiced in the program notes, that The Millionairess is Shaw's "final praise of the ridiculous," or the implication that Shaw was anticipating, even influencing, the Theatre of the Absurd.
The Millionairess is, in terms of style and construction, the most conventional of Shaw's late plays. While before and after it he was veering off in countless strange directions, for this effort Shaw marshalled all his technical prowess and produced the definitive summation of his theories concerning power, money, work, and conscience. Of all Shaw's outpourings, this is perhaps the most purely comic in tone, and therefore affords a splendid view of the craftsman at work, of a half century of theatrical experience synthesized into two hours and some odd of laugh piled upon laugh. That the play also manages to come briefly to grips with a serious theme is, well, downright remarkable.
Top-flight Shaw deserves more, maybe, than the Charles can give it. But by good fortune the weakest elements of this production are almost uniformly crammed into the first act, and the quality improves thereafter. Even Shaw-haters, and there are far too many of this odd, most often ignorant, breed--even they should find The Millionairess lovable.
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