Arms and the Woman

Marginally less inspired, but more fully resolved on this earthly plane, are Denis O'Hare, as Barbara's fiancé Cusins, and David Warner, making his U.S. stage debut as Undershaft. Cusins is a professor of Greek, and O'Hare catches, though perhaps slightly overstresses, his puckish, jittery, professorial quality. The danger in the performance is that we might think Cusins weak, a spouse most likely to be henpecked; in the tricky last act, O'Hare has to shout occasionally to make it clear that this bespectacled, slavishly devoted figure can assert himself, that his surface panoply of intellectual questionings and doubts conceals a strong set of principles facing their strongest challenge. Tall, craggily imposing Warner never needs to shout, and doesn't, except when Undershaft launches into his final grandstanding (the subject of his wife's tart comment). The minor flaw in Warner's otherwise sturdy, articulate performance is its leaning toward the crisp and perfunctory, as if he viewed his dealings with everyone onstage except Barbara and Cusins as another business negotiation; he makes no effort to sketch in the charm the other characters see in him, the sly humor of his interjections, the streaks of sympathy and compassion under his hardheadedness. On the other hand, Undershaft is the devil (Cusins repeatedly calls him "the Prince of Darkness"), and, as he often asserts, no gentleman. Warner's somber insistence on his deadly business darkens the play's color but also sharpens its impact.

Which may be the reason that Cherry Jones's Barbara seems an airier, perhaps even a flightier, figure than usual. Jones has carried heavy emotional burdens spectacularly well in a wide range of plays; one is accustomed to thinking of her as a "deep" actress, of her voice as a rich, lower-range instrument. But the voice always turns out to be higher, and its tone a little breathier, than one's recollection of it; here it goes along with the stylishly cut clothes (the handsome costumes are by Jane Greenwood) and a delicacy of manner to portray a young upper-class woman who has not moved all that far from the expensive family home. Even when the men are bantering, or bargaining with each other for control of her, Barbara ought to be our focus.

Dana Ivey: grand lady as comic mechanism
photo: Joan Marcus
Dana Ivey: grand lady as comic mechanism

Details

Major Barbara
By George Bernard Shaw
Formerly the Selwyn Theatre
Broadway and 42nd Street
212-719-1300

When Jones has the lines, nothing can stop her from riveting our attention: Her two "big" scenes—the struggle for Bill Walker's soul and the last-scene recrimination with her father over it—are high drama at its purest. When she has only interjections, though—as in the check-writing scene that provokes her "Why hast Thou forsaken me?"—she seems lost in the crowd. A similar dislocation occurred in Moon for the Misbegotten, as if something in the combination of this director and this actress made her reluctant to command the stage. But this play centers on a woman whose role in life is to command; Barbara is her father's daughter, just as her meek professorial spouse is a born "shark." He will continue the armaments business; what we don't see, in Jones's Barbara, is that she will transform it. But maybe, after 96 years of nonstop carnage, such hopes are hopelessly dated, which means that the transfiguring light at the end of Major Barbara is now its darkest aspect.

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