How do vegetarian socialists fall in love? Can they even feel love? John Morogiello addresses those questions in his period rom-com, Engaging Shaw, and you might be surprised how far at least one of them will go to deny the plausibility of love in this persistently entertaining staging directed by Robert Ashton for the West End Players Guild.
Our protagonist is nominally George Bernard Shaw (Matt Hanify), here a vital man in his forties whose favorite person is himself, whose favorite sound is that of his own voice and who is determined to share those great gifts with the world through the twin vectors of his writing and his socialist politics. Yes, he's a bit of an ass.
Hanify gives the ass his head, storming around the stage with serious intent and pausing just the briefest of moments before delivering his lines, as if he were composing all speech mentally prior to spitting it out in a torrent. It's off-putting at first, but once you adapt to the rhythm it seems a fine representation of a man famous for his protean thought and speech.
When we encounter him, Shaw is busy wooing a handful of married women. He does so for their sake, he claims. He desires not their physical charms but merely the pleasure of their company, and he enjoys the way his flirtations take the pressure off their husbands. It's the Victorian Age, and seemingly nobody in monied socialist circles enjoys sex.
That's as good a cue as any to introduce Charlotte Payne-Townshend (Suki Peters), a wealthy Irishwoman also in her forties who is as much a staunch nonconformist as Shaw. Peters makes certain she's just as sharp as the old goat, too. During their initial meeting, Shaw declaims, "I assure you I have no honorable intentions." Payne-Townshend fires back, "Somehow I'm not reassured," establishing the tenor of their relationship. He may deliver all the Shavian aphorisms, but she gets the majority of the punch lines.
Shaw and Payne-Townshend share a personal attraction that doesn't involve sex; neither wants marriage, nor a physical relationship. But soon Payne-Townshend does desire something more emotional from Shaw — marriage, or at least a permanent partnership. He's rather strict about not forming any emotional attachments and rebuffs all talk of love. They can spend time together, she can be his secretary and they can holiday together as well, but Shaw will admit no love and certainly not marriage.
So Payne-Townshend pursues the time-honored tactic of using his friends, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Jeff Kargas and Nancy Nigh), to manipulate, chivvy and goad the Great Man down the aisle. What follows is genuinely witty repartee and sparkling dialogue, as the two must fight their respective battles only through words. Peters and Hanify go at it hammer and tong for much of the second act, and both acquit themselves very well. Peters' voice has a musical lilt when she punctures Shaw's vanity, and as his defenses falter, Hanify grows louder and more desperate. It's a war of attrition, with Payne-Townshend holding the clear advantage: She knows what she wants, while Shaw knows only what he doesn't.
Long before the final verbal shots are fired, it's clear Shaw is doomed. During one protracted argument about matrimony, an exasperated Shaw bellows, "There are enough words in my mouth already that I don't need you putting more in there." Shaw, buddy — that's something a married man would say. You may as well have run up a white flag right there.