Photo by Ed Krieger/Laguna PlayhouseI blame Charles Marowitz. At intermission of Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood, I was high on theatrical excitement. The play was funny, there were great characterizations, and it was moving at light speed. I couldn't wait to see the second act.
And then Marowitz—the erudite, iconoclastic critic/director/writer whose poisoned quill and trenchant quips have assassinated plays and actors across the world for nigh unto 40 years—sat down next to me. I asked him how he liked things so far.
"Not really," he said in that quiet but impeccably assured English accent. "It's like Mo, Larry and Curly are onstage."
Maybe that was enough to give me a case of acute critical jaundice, but the second act of Mark Saltzman's ebullient treatment of the great George Bernard Shaw visiting a motion-picture lot tanks. The characters became caricatures, the plot became plodding, and whatever spark and excitement ignited in the first completely fizzled. It's reminiscent of a line that Shaw delivers in the second act, referring to the advent of talkies ruining the silent genius of the cinema: when the play begins to talk, you realize it has nothing to say.
Saltzman takes plenty of literary license, but the source material is factual: in March 1933, the venerable Shaw did visit the MGM lot, attending a luncheon hosted by the actor Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst's mistress. At the time, Hollywood was abuzz with the success of King Kong, but Shaw's visit was still treated as a tour of royalty. The invite list was impressive, including Clark Gable, John Barrymore and Charles Chaplin.
Saltzman's main plot conceit is that Davies (an absolutely terrific Carmen Thomas) and Louis Mayer (portrayed as a bumbling dolt by Glenn Taranto), the power broker behind the biggest studio of the time, both want the movie rights to Shaw's 1916 play, Pygmalion.But that's no easy task. Shaw (a sparkling Nicolas Coster) was notorious for his unwillingness to hand over rights to movie types, whom he refers to as vultures and mutilators. So most of the first act follows the actress and the producer's stratagems to seduce Shaw, who, surprisingly, isn't as cold to the idea as you'd think.
Again, the first act is a breeze, a snappy, carefree ride crisply directed by Daniel Henning, the artistic director of the Blank Theater Co., one of Los Angeles' ubiquitous small theater companies. It's a frenetic excursion that begins in Shaw's pastoral English garden and continues through an emergency plane landing in Malibu, as well as a white-knuckle car trip to the Culver City offices of Louis B. Mayer and MGM.
While most of this is all nicely appointed fun, Saltzman occasionally slows the hustle to let Shaw pontificate about America's unique form of socialism (the California university system) and economic inequities in American society.
But the second act has more dead ends than a morgue. Dramatic tension is drained through a series of unnecessary scenes, and Shaw disappears from his own play. Who cares about Gable's peccadilloes or Mayer's blackmailing when you've got Shaw? Who cares about Davies and Mrs. Shaw tittering on about what it's like to be the women behind great men when you've got Shaw? Who cares about a Spanish waiter musing about John Barrymore when you've got Shaw?
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Elevating the Hollywood A-list to the foreground silences Shaw, that wittiest and insightful of gadflies. Shaw is positively Socratic in the first act; in the second act, he's wallpaper—when he's not missing in action.
The play's final image makes bile rise: Shaw proudly hoists an Oscar for his 1938 screenplay of Pygmalion, which was ultimately produced by an English studio. As he stands in his garden, the ultimate symbol of mainstream acceptance and adoration in his hand, Shaw's wife (a dignified Mala Powers) delivers what is surely the most Shavian critique on the motion-picture industry ever: Wouldn't it be nice if the folks in Hollywood would stop being so full of themselves and just make good movies?
On opening night, that comment generated a scattering of applause among the few yokels who didn't remove their rose-colored glasses before entering the theater. Those blessed or cursed with the ability to see through dramaturgical bullshit wisely sat on their hands, hoping Mr. Shaw's subterranean rotation wasn't too uncomfortable.
Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS; www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through May 4. $42-$49.