Is it murder if you're gentlemanly about it? Are you good if you are narrowly religious, or is true good measured by action? George Bernard Shaw's wit is in exceptionally good form in The Devil's Disciple, as the Irish Rep's production, condensed and well-directed by Tony Walton. Overall, the play is a bit narrow in scope and spends most of the second act repeating itself, but the performances from Curzon Dobell in the first act and Lorenzo Pisoni in the second keep us interested.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
The original production of George Bernard Shaw's revolutionary play, The Devil's Disciple (1897), had a featured cast larger than 33 in number, and spoke out with a wit and truth strong enough to make critics of the time agree it was "novel to the verge of audacious eccentricity." To mount it on the small Irish Rep stage, Tony Walton has condensed the play down to eleven main parts and nine actors, and in doing so has streamlined the action (save for a expository first scene) and focused on the hypocrisy that makes this play so endearing (albeit more than a little redundant).
To begin with, Shaw focuses on the strict and Puritan rule of Mrs. Dudgeon (Darcy Pulliam), a shrill housekeeper who never ceases to complain about having to care for her uncle's bastard, Essie (Cristin Milioti), let alone her own two "good-for-nothing" children. "Let her hear," she shouts at her well-behaved but doltish son, Christy (an eager and pleasing Craig Pattison). "People who fear God don't fear to give the devil's work its right name!" This sets up the historical values of the time (1777) and place (New Hampshire), although Shaw quickly goes about mocking these values by portraying Mrs. Dudgeon as an unflinchingly cold woman (she's the only one in the house who never seems to need to warm herself by the fire). He's also gives balance to the bitter Mrs. Dudgeon by making the minister, Anthony Anderson (a delightful Curzon Dobell) into a thoughtful rebel, and by turning the antihero, roguish and well-named Dick Dudgeon (the captivating Lorenzo Pisoni) into the unlikeliest of heroes.
Shaw spends his first act, then, dealing with the reversal of roles: the set roles that we imagine for Anthony and Dick are quickly reversed, with Dick bravely marching to the English gallows in Anthony's stead, and Anthony appearing to flee the scene with the cry "Minister be damned!" As for the second, the Shaw applies his grand wit to the concepts of martyrdom ("It is the only way a person can become famous without ability"), gentlemanly contradiction ("If we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling"), and the laughable nature of the English army, as evinced by a clash between the thoughtful General Burgoyne (John Windsor-Cunningham) and the aggressive Major Swindon (Robert Sedgwick). Even as the noose is wrapped around his neck, Dick cannot resist mocking the proceedings.
Another plot running through the show is that of the minister's wife, Judith (Jenny Fellner), who deals with the baggage of Shaw's era: "I am only a woman, I can do nothing," she exclaims. After spending half the play despising Dick for no reason other than his reputation, she spends the rest of it trying to save his life, and thereby proving another of Shaw's points: "The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent toward them: that's the essence of inhumanity.. . . If you watch people carefully you'll be surprised to find how like hate is to love." This is what we see in the coolness of the military and in the iciness bestowed by an ill reputation (those who won't give Dick the time of day).
All told, The Devil's Disciple is a very funny play, but one which doesn't really channel Shaw's wit to his best effect. The message is limited, and the second act focuses too narrowly on insulting the poor marksmanship of British forces (ironically, with precise aim of his own). What's to be gleaned from this play, then, are the excellently balanced performances of Dobell and Pisoni, who make Anthony and Dick into the best of "enemies," as well as the moral message that religiousness is not a measure of good, but rather of selfishness, and that true good can only be measured by actions that so bestow it, be them by the self-proclaimed devil's disciple, or by a gun-toting minister.
Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street)
Tickets (212-727-2737): $60.00
Performances (through 1/27): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00 | Wed., Sat., Sun. @ 3:00
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