By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Roger Tompkins
Steeplechase Productions
The Liberty Deli
2722 Alki Avenue SW
Seattle, WA 98116
(206) 935-8420

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

On Alki Point, in West Seattle, across the Sound from the lights of the city, the million dollar production budgets, the funding crises and high-profile institutions, there's a tiny deli where they do plays.

As obscure as their location, G. B. Shaw's "The Millionairess" is an almost forgotten piece of social comedy, typically intelligent and incisive, a bit long-winded (what, Shaw?!!), filled with skillfully crafted characters and bright dialogue. Director Roger Tompkins has guided a mostly Equity cast to an engaging, if rather uneven, production. The postage stamp stage is arms-length from the dinner-theatre audience, and the production values are all about the actor and the text. It isn't great Shaw, and it isn't great performance, but in both cases it's substantial, respectable and nourishing.

The play opens with the Lady Fitzfassenden (Kady Douglas) in a solicitor's office, having a new will drawn up prior to committing suicide, an act which she hopes to accomplish with minumum inconvenience to herself and maximum strategic inconvenience to others. As one character after another arrives, we soon realize that everyone is sleeping with someone to whom they're not married, that those who are married are miserable, and that everyone's pre-eminent concern is money. As the Lady says, "Nobody is anybody without money".

It's a deliciously irreverent exercise in vanity, venality and stylish superficiality. Although The Lady is clearly intended as a self-dramatizing, overly-theatrical woman of privilege without perception (her full name is a swirl of pretentiousness), Kady Douglas is a bit too broad for the intimate space, and rather than a comic awareness of false surfaces, we see her acting. The same is true for Karen Heaven, as a commoner who is involved with a boxer (Michel Harding) whom the Lady married for reasons obscure even to herself. It seems he met her father's challenge for handling money, first increasing it with dumb-luck, then, after the marriage, losing it with just the dumb. Mr. Harding is also large and loud in his presentation, but the character calls for that more physical orientation. With Dennis Kleinsmith and Christopher Shine adding two more rather too in-your-face characters, the whole first act is in danger of overblowing the stage and the script.

When the act ends with an actual fight, nearly slapstick, it is even more clear that the action needed a more gradual rise, and more restraint at the beginning. That is also underscored by the nicely controlled performance of Galen Joseph Osieras the solicitor. His imperturbability emphasized the absurdity of the values being represented, and allowed him to represent the society which validated them. In the evening's best performance, Dennis Kleinsmith, as a doctor, represents an entirely different religious and moral orientation. He is a "Mohammadan" who has married Science and foresworn the material world. He accepts a the old bet from the Lady that he can build a small amount of money into a small fortune, if she can live on practically nothing. The role is played with dignity and calm certainty, and the striking contrast between his applied values and the applied values of the moneyed class is intriguing and amusing.

The second act gives us Shaw at his most socially conscious and morally indignant. In response to the wager, the Lady finds herself in a struggling sweat shop, looking for an opportunity. Deftly dodging real work, she takes protection money from the poor but honest owners. It is the natural employment of the ruling class, and she immediately sees how to capitalize on its every advantage. This opening act (the play's original four acts have been combined into two) was the most compelling and convincing of the evening. As the shop owner, Kleinsmith was hearty and without illusion. His wife, who only wants for things to remain unchanged, was wonderfully played by Anastasia Israel. Her dramatic urgency and simple integrity made one of the play's strongest arguments, and in the least rhetorical way. Where all the others played a kind of shadow-tag between social, ethical and personal ethics, hers was simply the desire to live modestly and without subterfuge. Thankfully, all of the characters were under much better control throughout the second act, and Kady Douglas and Karen Heaven, in particular, really hit a fine stride. The play's resolution was tidy and amusing, if not especially satisfying.

"The Millionairess" is a minor work by a major writer, and this production is characterized by skillful performance and a respectful regard for the play. While the pace and dramatic development might be better directed, the cast is fully capable and the evening thoroughly entertaining. Best of all is the unwritten, unspoken message it delivers that reminds us that theatre is essentially about the intimate and immediate communication between living persons, actor and audience, in real-time, without the need for effects, without great artifice or elaboration, without pomposity. Surely Shaw would have approved of that.

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