First Nighter: George Bernard Shaw's Little-Seen "Widowers' House" Viewed Smartly Now

When George Bernard Shaw, who had strong opinions about what constituted potent theater, wrote his first play, Widowers' Houses, in 1892, he came out swinging. David Staller's TACT-Gingold Theatrical Group co-production, at the Beckett, doesn't duck those punches, either, although on Brian Prather's light-hearted gray-and-white set with its five filigree arches, the dramedy doesn't look as if it's intended for hunting bear. Or should that be it doesn't look as if it's hunting bear or bull markets.

At first blush--through act one of the tidy three-act work--it merely looks as if crusading Fabian-Society activist Shaw wants to send up his fellow Brits when they're vacationing. Testy pals Dr. Harry Trench (Jeremy Beck) and William de Burgh Cokane (Jonathan Hadley) are relaxing on the terrace of a Rhine-side German Hotel when businessman Sartorius (Terry Layman) and his ostensibly demure daughter Blanche (Talene Monahon) arrive.

Harry and Blanche have already eyed one another (and more) on the ship that brought them to this idyll and are raring to pledge themselves to each other. Which they quickly do. They even receive Sartorius's blessing, making it look as if the path of true love is about to run smoothly for a change.

That's until they're back at the Sartorius's Bedford Square home in London and their burgeoning bliss is interrupted by an agent called Lickcheese (John Plumpis), who's been inveigling overdue rents from the occupants of Sartorius's buildings but shows up to complain about his just having been fired.

So incensed is this obsequious Lickcheese (notice that the names Shaw assigns his characters have meaning) that he fills Harry in on the shady family dealings. This makes Harry balk when he lets Blanche know he expects the two of them to live on his annual 700 pounds.

Blanche, who instantly indicates she never blanches, refuses to exist at any level lower than the one to which she's become accustomed. No longer the retiring young miss but instead an obdurate termagant, she shoves the upstanding Harry out of her life--just about physically (no fight director credited in the program)--until he decides whether he can choose to be a bit less pure.

In that manner, Blanche brings the audience around to Shaw's cynical viewpoint. The budding dramatist wants to see how long it takes Harry--whom director Staller introduces at the start of action in an isolating spotlight--to determine whether he will remain true to his principles or abandon them in favor of a real estate scam that will fill his pockets. Not incidentally, no one else on stage is plugging for Harry's rectitude, including the spineless Cokane (pronounced co-can, not cocaine).

Since this is Shaw doing the intoning, Harry's scruples can be assumed at risk, but what won't be detailed here is whether he adjusts his attitude to reunite with the ruthless Blanche, no matter how dainty she appears in the day outfit that costumer Barbara A. Bell picks out for her.

What anyone needs to know about this should-see offering of a rarely staged Shaw work--Staller, who's devoting his career to perpetuating Shaw via his Gingold Theatrical Group, makes the ideal purveyor--is that before Harry commits to his decision, there's a good deal of chat about real estate financing that has to have been more familiar to late19th-century Brits than to 21st-century Americans. This attentive listener grasped enough of it to follow the plot and figures most patrons will do the same.

Unsurprisingly, the themes Shaw persisted in presenting over his career are already on his mind. The socialist leanings he favored are most prominent in the figure of Lickcheese. He's initially seen in act two as a hat-in-hand bloke proclaiming, "I'm poor!" When he resurfaces in act three (there's only one intermission in Staller's take), he's top-hat-on-head, having cleaned up in a real estate scam of his own and now being enthusiastically welcomed by the previously dismissive Sartorius and daughter.

In Pygmalion Shaw does something similar with Alfred P. Doolittle, a working-class man who also comes into money. But Doolittle comes into the fortune to his dismay. That, of course, is the radical difference between Lickcheese and Doolittle. All the same, they could share their newly acquired formal wear.

Aside from a German beer hall frau (Hanna Cheek, who's decidedly cheeky) and a Sartorius household staffer (Cheek again and less cheeky), Shaw's people are ultimately serious connivers. The cast members play them as gleefully corruptible, if not already corrupted. Okay, Beck's Harry does wrestle with his conscience nicely for a while.

Monahon's Blanche certainly doesn't. While all of the characterizations are adroitly handled, Monahon's is the most demanding, the most mercurial. She doesn't hold back from depicting any of Blanche's darker inclinations. Her throwing Harry around is quite the opposite: It's fury in fashionable dress.

Shaw followers don't get the opportunity to take in Widowers' House often, but that's not the only reason for racing to this one. An even more incentive for raising a foaming beer stein to it is that it's so well and so forthrightly done. Director Staller's belief in its being presented pays off handsomely.