nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 8, 2005
Pearl Theatre's newest production, Widowers' Houses by Bernard Shaw, brings us back to a time when ruthless self-made capitalists were persona non grata in proper society: sure, it's a study in hypocrisy, but there's something somehow refreshing about the rigid politeness of the snobbish upper classes of Victorian England. Mr. Sartorious, a slum landlord of vast wealth but no social position, actually demands affidavits from the titled relatives of his prospective son-in-law, assuring that they will receive his daughter Blanche into their homes. Imagine such worries plaguing the likes of Donald Trump or Martha Stewart.
For his part, the young man, Harry Trench, is completely ready to ignore Sartorious's humble background—until, that is, he discovers the source of Sartorious's income. Then he is appalled: how can a man make his living on the backs on the poorest of the poor, charging them inflated (if meager) rents for horrific tenements that are mostly unfit for human occupation? But Sartorious is able to turn the tables on him:
SARTORIOUS: And now, Dr. Trench, may I ask what your income is derived from?
TRENCH (defiantly): From interest: not from houses. My hands are clean as far as that goes. Interest on a mortgage.
SARTORIOUS (forcibly): Yes: a mortgage on my property. When I, to use your own words, screw, and bully, and drive these people to pay what they have freely undertaken to pay me, I cannot touch one penny of the money they give me until I have first paid you your seven hundred a year out of it.
Leave it to Shaw to insert such a succinct criticism of the capitalist system inside what has heretofore felt like an almost Wildean comedy of manners. In Widowers' Houses' third act he'll propose a rather cynical resolution; until then, though, he'll keep us rapt in a torrent of theoretical discussion regarding how to improve the lot of the poor and, more pointedly, precisely who is ultimately responsible for said improvement, and how, and why.
This is Shaw's first play and far from his best, but it's absolutely worth hearing; as they so often do, the folks at Pearl are doing their audiences a great service in mounting with enormous precision and care a play that no commercial company would likely ever touch. Widowers' Houses offers some sterling opportunities to several of the Pearl's formidable resident actors: Dan Daily is at his commanding best as the pragmatic and sometimes tyrannical Sartorious; Sean McNall balances youthful decency with acute intelligence as Harry Trench; Dominic Cuskern is wondrously petty as Harry's friend Mr. William de Burgh Cokane, a gentleman obsessed with appearances and tact (at the expense of actuality and truth); and Edward Seamon is fine as a fellow with the improbable name of Lickcheese, who is one of Sartorious's rent collectors (he feels a bit like a prototype for Alfred P. Doolittle). Rachel Botchan, generally the ingenue, plays a leading lady of a very different sort here—Blanche, Sartorious's daughter and Harry's intended, is a sharp-tongued, selfish, avaricious little thing, not at all admirable and barely likable; Botchan goes at her full-force, pleased, it would seem, if we hate her down to her spoiled insides.
J.R. Sullivan is at the helm of this production, and provides the necessary pacing and motion for the thing. Design—sets by Takeshi Kata, costumes by Liz Covey, and lighting by Stephen Petrilli—are all apt and appropriate.
Shaw would learn how better to balance entertainment and edification in his later plays, but Widowers' Houses is by no means a disappointment. Pearl's production reveals it to contain plenty of food for thought—the problems of inequitable distribution in our economy not, alas, having been much solved over the last century.