For those still toiling under the assumptions of Playwrighting 101—that a play isn't a "good" play unless it's plot-heavy and populated by fully "dimensional" characters the audience can truly believe—we submit George Bernard Shaw. Shaw didn't write plays as such; he wrote manifestos promoting his own brand of humanistic socialism. Animated by his eagerness for social change, each was a devastating satire of an ossified British society and the dangers of unchecked capitalism. He didn't write characters you believed in; he created skeletal archetypes who gave voice to ideas you might fight for.
The fact that Shaw is more popular today than in his prime suggests several things: the man knew how to write; you can write great plays that flout the orthodoxies of the craft; and because his ideas have somehow remarkably survived, the recent "triumph" of global capitalism is not at all certain.
Shaw has managed all this years after his death in 1950 at age 94. About five years ago, Jeffrey Hatcher, a fine playwright himself, adapted Shaw's 1884 novel An Unsocial Socialistinto Smash.This Long Beach Playhouse production of that play shows that Shaw remains an important and necessary voice, one as powerful and relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Hatcher's adaptation shows something else: though Shaw was among the most political of the great playwrights, his politics stemmed from his deep compassion. Seldom has a writer so enamored of social change been as obviously convinced of the dignity of the human animal as Shaw. Shaw was also very, very funny.
Smash tells the story of Sidney Trefusis (a likable Michael Carr), a man who has left his beautiful wife, Henrietta (Nicole Ann Mohr, who starts out slow but winds up powerfully persuasive), on their wedding day because he fears marriage will compromise his commitment to socialism. Sidney's decision is complicated by the fact that he's also a millionaire. Disguising himself as a gardener named Mengles, Sidney infiltrates Alton College, an all-girl school whose main purpose is to prepare young women to become wives for noblemen and politicians. Sidney's revolutionary plan is to plant the seeds of socialism among the young women in hopes that they will blossom into revolutionaries and derail their future husbands.
Of course, this is Shaw's universe, so things go terribly awry in high comic fashion. Most of the comedy emerges with the presence on campus of tempestuous firebrand Agatha Wylie (a talented, magnetic Amanda Karr). Determined to free herself from Alton College and Miss Wilson (Ann Ross), the controlling harridan who runs the school, intelligent and articulate Agatha already unwittingly embodies the very spirit of revolutionary change that Sidney so desperately hopes to cultivate. She may not know Marx or Engels, but she's already a radical, and Sidney's effort to shape her youthful indignation and raw passion into the weapons of class struggle produces hilarious, if predictable, results.
There's not much in Smashthat advances the cause of socialism, even Shaw's rather reform-minded, work-within-the-system version. Sidney is revealed as a dilettante, a self-absorbed, pig-headed wannabe intellectual whose strident tone only highlights the gap between his experience and his aspirations. But there is a lot in Smashthat advances Shaw's deeper cause, the one he believed enlightened socialism would serve: the liberation of humanity. Few male playwrights—and only a few female ones—have been as feminist as Shaw, so it's hardly surprising that the truly level-headed characters in Smashare women.
But Hatcher's adaptation, as presented in director Russell St. Clair's straightforward, enthusiastic production, winds up working best, ironically enough, on a level that Shaw was not overly concerned with: the emotional one. Shaw was no romantic, but Smashhas as much to say about the mercurial, hair-raising power of love as it does about the power of politics.
That theme emerges brilliantly near the play's end. After being left by Sidney, the jilted Henrietta responds as anyone abandoned for another lover would: she investigates, tracks down and confronts the cock-trolling bitch. But this time it's not another woman: it's an idea. She holes up in the British Museum, reading tract after tract of Marx and Engels. Armed with this knowledge, she realizes something profound about Sidney's passion that he doesn't: it's all bollocks. Thus armed, Henrietta offers a stirring, simple denunciation of communism—as well as the American myth of human equality. The problem, says Henrietta, is people: the heart is anything but equal. Affection is not equal. Pain is not equal. Revenge is not equal.
It's a great point, one that reveals the complexity of Shaw's writing. Even this political, anti-Romantic playwright knew the limitations of his own ideas and the power of human emotion. And it's that collision—between the rarefied realm of ideas and theory and the far more passionate, complicated world of practice and human feeling—that infuses Smashwith vitality. Simply put, this production is a bloody smashin' success.
Smash at Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through March 2. $15.