Review: 'Mr. Shaw' shows promise of new season at Pioneer Playhouse


The Pioneer Playhouse has gotten a pretty good start on what, no doubt, is going to be a tough season. The April death of the Colonel, playhouse founder Eben C. Henson, seemed to cast a bit of a pall over goings-on Friday night. And I think this first show probably is the most difficult, because it's new territory getting a show up and running without the Colonel there.

That said, "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood," the season opener directed by Robby Henson, is a solid beginning that undoubtedly will get better and better over the course of the run. The audience members were receptive and seemed amused by the dialogue and shenanigans.

The play explores playwright George Bernard Shaw's sole trip to America to visit MGM movie studios in 1933. Many at MGM are interested in bringing Shaw's "Pygmalion" to film. According to notes in the program, "Though some dramatic license is claimed, the main events of this play and that day are a matter of historical record."


There are fascinating major players in "Shaw": The opinionated, precise, vaguely intimidating Shaw (Dave Haller); his wife, Charlotte (Patricia Hammond, in her seventh season at the playhouse), a sensible, cordial "behind every famous man" type; pushy, fast-talking studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Robert G. Hess); ambitious, slightly vulgar actress Marion Davies (Marjorie Tatum, returning after a season's absence); her elegant sugar-daddy, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Eben French Mastin, in his 11th season at the playhouse); philandering and not-so-bright tomcat Clark Gable (Michael Muldoon); drunken, fading actor John Barrymore (Bruce Nicholls, returning from last season); and the astute, eager houseboy Oscar (Matt Franta). There are a few smaller roles as well that add spice to the proceedings.

The energy and charisma of Hess' performance as studio boss Mayer proves most engaging during the show. He portrays Mayer as he browbeats, cajoles, bullies and compliments with a finesse and slick detail that amused the audience. Franta brings to Oscar an endearing quality as well as intelligence, creating a appealing young man awed by what goes on around him in Tinseltown.

Another audience member said there was some difficulty understanding Nicholls. Nevertheless, I liked the elegance and affronted pride the actor brought to the Barrymore role - Barrymore and Shaw apparently had a distinct difference of opinion on one of Barrymore's performances - and the convincing inebriation of Barrymore after he drinks Scotch out of a tea service's sugar caddy.

Haller portrays Shaw as candid and wry. Shaw seems perplexed, at times, by all the attention he is drawing, and annoyed by many Hollywooders' machinations to get him to turn over rights to his plays so they can be made into films. Hammond gives every appearance of being the detail-oriented power behind Shaw's throne, and conveys a graciousness that draws many of the other players to her. The two together seem comfortable - not particularly affectionate, but easy in one another's company.

Tatum's Davies drew laughs with some of her crass remarks, and the actress' performance both is solid and poignant. Tatum creates in Davies a not-too-smart, seemingly loose woman who nevertheless struggles to be successful and move away from the shadow of Hearst. Mastin's Hearst is a controlled and controlling sort, an old man obsessed with a young woman, as one character said. Mastin brings polish and intelligence to the role. I never saw or detected any particular passion between Davies and Hearst.

Only at the end did I get a sense of something beyond the companionability with which they dealt with each other throughout the show - a sort of fondness, perhaps, as might be between a grandfather and his granddaughter.

I found the Gable portrayal most perplexing. I think Muldoon likely did well with the script, but I didn't get a distinct feeling of "This is a ladies' man" from his performance. Gable mostly just seemed unhappy and uncomfortable. Maybe that's how it was, but I think that the "tomcat" aspect should have been downplayed more, because the character just didn't have the bad-boy allure of a tomcat at all.

The set was nice and the costumes gorgeous. The pacing and energy seemed erratic at times - I had more than one person tell me that they weren't engaged by the first act. But I think all this will smooth out over the next week or so, and I think the play is well worth seeing.

The ambiance and historical impact of old Hollywood are worth exploring for a couple of hours, to see what some of the names we know from the classic movies were like, as well as the play's depiction of a revered playwright.

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