Pioneer Playhouse holding comedy's 'east coast premier'


Director Robby Henson says the story of how "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood" made it to Danville rather than New York City for its east coast premier is a funny one.

Henson had seen the play at the Laguna Beach, Calif., playhouse and asked playwright Mark Saltzman if Pioneer Playhouse could host the play's east coast premier. Saltzman's attorney and agent turned him down flat, Henson says. They wanted a New York City east coast premier.

"My father (the late Eben C. "Colonel" Henson) said, "Gimme the phone number, and we're going to do the play,'" Henson remembers. "My father talked to Mark and was very persuasive, as the Colonel could be. I'm sorry he can't see the play."

Saltzman seconded that sentiment, when asked what persuaded him to have the east coast premier of "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood" at the Pioneer Playhouse.


"It was not a 'what' but a 'who' that persuaded me: Col. Henson himself," Saltzman says. "I'm saddened at the fact that I won't be meeting him, to thank him in person for convincing me to turn over "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood" to the Pioneer Playhouse."

Coincidentally, one of the performers in the Laguna Beach production was Kentuckian Richie Nash, who spent a summer performing at the playhouse. Henson says he found the production to be "very delightful, heartwarming and funny."

Play is about Tinseltown in 1933

Henson says "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood" is about Tinseltown in 1933, when renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw (played by Dave Haller) visits Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.

"The whole studio is in a ruckus," Henson explains. "Everyone wants the rights to 'Pygmalion,' and everyone wants to impress him. Then the fun ensues."

He says some audience members will enjoy seeing celebrities from their childhoods, such as Clark Gable (Michael Muldoon), John Barrymore (Bruce Nicholls) and Marion Davies (Marjorie Tatum) brought to life onstage.

"It's not a fast farce," Henson adds. "It's a warm, nostalgic comedy. The actors are bringing to life memories for audience members who remember those MGM stars."

Saltzman says the play was inspired by "a photograph of a luncheon event at MGM."

"There at the table sat Shaw, Marion Davies, Louis B. Mayer and Clark Gable," he explains. "All but Shaw looked as if they were having the worst day of their lives.

"I charged down to the Motion Picture Academy Library - yes, the academy does some worthwhile work, beyond handing out awards - did some research, and found out what had happened on the day of that MGM luncheon. (It was) one disaster after another, and it all went into the play."

Saltzman, who adds his current project is working on his anger toward his parents, says he was born in the Bronx in the 1950s.

"This prepared me for my encounter with George Bernard Shaw's work," he notes. "England produced one wit like Shaw, but in the Bronx, we had one on every corner."

Actors will have challenge of portraying well-known people

Henson says the play presents challenges to the actors who must portray well-known people.

"And there are some set challenges just trying to evoke the glamour of Hollywood," he notes.

Adds assistant director and stage manager Elisa Abatsis, "And it's a challenge keeping it heartwarming ... when it's a comedy."

Says Henson, "Sometimes, in two weeks, we can run, run, run the farce part but the challenge is to focus on the warm characterizations and let the actors immerse themselves in the roles."

He is glad the playhouse is hosting a "showpiece for the playhouse" such as "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood."

"(The play) could do well with audiences all over," Henson says. "The backdrop of Hollywood in the '30s is a glamorous, glitzy backdrop, and it is based on a true story."

Those aspects should appeal to a range of performance attendees.

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