First Unitarian Congregational Society
Through May 30
When the play Major Barbara first premiered in 1905, it was a good time to be a ruling-class Briton. It was more than a decade before the British Empire would peak in size, and it seemed only to be bound for greater things. World War I had yet to mow down its unfathomable numbers of young lives. How perfect, then, for socialist gadfly and critic of militarism George Bernard Shaw to write a drama poking and prodding at the rationalizations that the establishment offered for the buildup of ever greater and more terrible armaments. In this play, Shaw pitted a weapons manufacturer, Andrew Undershaft, against Undershaft’s own estranged daughter Barbara, a high-ranking missionary for the Salvation Army. The premise is that Major Barbara has a sudden opportunity to accept a huge donation to the Army from her father, but refuses it on principle, saying it’s tainted with the blood of war.
Brave New World Repertory Theatre, which produces some classics and new works specifically by Brooklyn writers, has turned out a studied, thorough and well-paced production of Major Barbara that holds the audience from beginning to end. Working with a modest budget, they make the most of their resources and, for this project at least, create a sense of great wealth in just the right places to make a play about rich and poor convincing.
Performances are very good overall, both individually and as an ensemble. Grace Rao sparkles as the staunchly idealist title character, drawing us in with her inexhaustible compassion and compulsion, and then taking us on the roller coaster as her various assumptions get knocked down, resurrected and turned inside-out. We have to remember here how radical a departure it would be, in 1905, for an heiress of a wealthy, respectable, Anglican-establishment family to go work for the Salvation Army. If any American has a strong image of the Salvation Army as an organization, it’s probably an image of stolid reactionaries. To Barbara’s family, however, it is a downright subversive outfit. The way Rao plays Barbara in this context, she could absolutely be that friend of yours who has hard-to-fathom political beliefs but projects such courage in her convictions that you always feel things will work out if you stick by her side.
Barbara’s foil, her father Andrew, gets an unusual treatment from the slight, sly David Frutkoff. The role is often played by a burly alpha male, roughly shouldering the world out of his way, but Frutkoff manages to pull it off with aplomb as a creepily impish, insinuating cypher who looks more like Joel Grey’s emcee character from Cabaret than J.P. Morgan. You don’t even get the sense of a Napoleon complex; this captain of industry’s cold, calculating intelligence insulates him from any sense of insecurity. Indeed, Frutkoff manages to summon up a startlingly triumphant boom in his voice as he harangues his character’s son in a monologue about money and politics that feels like a direct ancestor of Gordon Gekko’s “You think this is a democracy?!” bit from Wall Street.
To return to the ensemble acting, this play contains many moments that require the give-and-take of quick repartee, as high ideals, expressed methodically in an often essay-like structure, mix with the occasional glib one-liner and everything in between. Generally, the older and more classic the play, the more you have to suspend your disbelief that any real person could come up with lines like these on the spot, for so long at a clip and at such speed, and Major Barbara is no exception. These actors, however, imbue the lines with a timeless, unforced emotion that makes you go right along with them, and no one falters in the rhythm of the exchange.
Dialect is almost as important here as it is in Shaw’s Pygmalion, because Major Barbara has so much to say about class — about the nervous striving to maintain proprieties and keep up appearances, about the icky in-group-out-group rituals and the mutual contempt that the rich, the poor and the myriad tiers of the middle class all hold with varying degrees of openness. Smart casting choices gave the most lines to the people who could do the most convincing accents (including East London and elevated RP English a la Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins), so while the accents aren’t perfect, they’re impressively consistent and don’t detract from the rest of the play.
I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it. I will say this: In less than two hours, this company forces us to confront issues that are just as present in the second Gilded Age we live in now — when it seems as if almost no publicly traded firm is more than a few degrees of separation from the war machine, and the major nonprofits and civil-society organizations have to go hat in hand to these corporations if they want to keep operating — as they were a century ago. Just as Barbara asks herself, so too must our modern nonprofits: just what strings are attached, and is it worth it?
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