Chicago Theatre Review
Back to the Golden Era
Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood
George Bernard Shaw and his lovely wife Charlotte have decided to stop at Hollywood’s MGM Studios for a luncheon meeting as part of their 1933 round-the-world tour. The day was apparently fraught with all kinds of difficulties, from their emergency airplane landing on Malibu Beach, hitching a harrowing ride with a young UCLA student and exchanging barbs, zingers and clever witticisms with John Barrymore, Ann Harding and Louis B. Mayer. The luncheon, hosted by William Randolph Hearst and his young actress/mistress Marion Davies, also included Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin but neglected Shaw’s dietary requirements. GBS was a strict vegetarian and Miss Davies was hard-pressed to find a vegetable anywhere on the MGM lot; however, even though it was during Prohibition, there was plenty of bootleg booze flowing throughout the day.
Prolific television, stage and screenwriter Mark Saltzman was inspired to create this fast-paced comedy upon discovering an old photograph taken during this very luncheon. It shows GBS, very much in command of the situation, and Mayer, Davies and Gable staring grimly at the camera. Imagining what prompted this unusual reaction from these celebrities accustomed to smiling for the press, the writer of “Clutter,” “Mrs. Santa Claus” and “Sesame Street” decided to dramatize this special Hollywood event. Incorporating just a smidgeon of writer’s license all of the play’s depicted bizarre plot twists actually happened.
Saltzman’s script is lively and filled with gossip, studio politics and good humor, but it bounces through a great many locations. Ricocheting between a variety of locales is difficult, although director John Nasca does an excellent job keeping the story moving within the tiny theatre space. Saltzman’s cinematic play, which did well a few years ago as a staged reading (because locale changes were economically provided by a narrator) would work better on film. Framed by the MGM studio gates, Robert E. Estrin accomplishes the script’s 24 scene changes by employing period projections and relying on Scott Pillsbury’s area lighting. John Nasca’s costumes are near duplicates of what the celebrities wore in that famous photo.
Mimicking the high-voltage film comedies of the ‘30‘s, the acting style is often broad and sometimes too loud for this intimate space. Anita Kallen, however, is excellent in the role of Charlotte Shaw, maintaining a much-welcome “Downton Abbey” reserve and demeanor in her characterization. Bob Ibanez plays a funny, short-sighted studio gatekeeper, but he truly excels in his larger role of Clark Gable. Using just a hint of the mannerisms and speech pattern associated with Gable, Ibanez nicely underplays the King and makes Gable a real person. Michael D. Graham is a schmoozy Louis B. Mayer, thankfully short on bluster and long on more introspective moments than one might expect. Cat Hermes has some very good moments as Marion Davies, but she too often vacillates between madcap and realistic to be taken seriously. And both Bill Chamberlain’s Shaw and Tom Cassidy’s Hearst become better with each scene. The real star of this production, however, is Jonathan Helvey playing the UCLA student, Charlie Chaplin and a passionate wannabe actor and Spanish houseboy named Oscar. His scenes with Shaw are among the play’s best.
Mark Saltzman’s cat-and-mouse comedy of manners gives audiences a taste of what might have happened during that 1933 luncheon meeting, featuring some of the biggest celebrities of that day. Filled with humor and insight into the power and politics found during Hollywood’s Golden Era, this is an entertaining little play that will provide some welcome warmth to Chicago’s winter nights.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 10-February 16 by MadKap Productions at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-404-7336 or by visiting www.greenhousetheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.