In 1909 Nobel Prize-winning dramatist George Bernard Shaw wrote a tidy little screed that slammed what he called the "mechanical" tendencies of turn-of-the-century theater. "How to Write a Popular Play" is full of acerbic advice: "First you have an idea for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by circumstance of a crime may always be depended on." Railing against formulaic writing, Shaw went on to lambaste the critics who had "become so accustomed to the formula that at last they cannot relish or understand a play that has grown naturally."
Paradoxically, Shaw's own The Devil's Disciple, first produced in 1897, is built on a situation much like the one he ridicules (a paradox Shaw himself pointed out). But the Alley's production of the crafty script, directed with unusual reserve by Gregory Boyd, reveals how much a great writer can do with a standard formula. Buzzing with generous jolts of unmatchable wit, and the energy of actor Ty Mayberry as the sexy, dark-haired romantic lead, the "dependable" situation is transformed into a biting social tract against hypocrisy, puritanical repression and the general foolishness of the babbling crowd.
Designer Vincent Mountain's artful set lets us know that we're in New England during the winter of 1777. Parchment- colored scrims silk-screened with blown-up clippings from pamphlets and colonial newspapers hang in long flags along the back of the stage. Hunkering in the dark foreground is a brown, sparsely furnished Puritan kitchen that belongs to Anne Dudgeon (Bettye Fitzpatrick). We meet the old woman there, in the middle of the night, as she waits in her plain woolen dress for news about her menfolk. When a knock sounds at the door, Anne barks out to a barefoot ragamuffin girl sleeping in the corner, "Wake up and be ashamed of yourself."
The Devil's Disciple
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through Sunday, June 17; 713-228-8421; $32-$49
And so begins Shaw's wry attack on sanctimonious Puritan ideas, which we eventually discover are held together by a flimsy web of conventions that breaks apart as soon as real trouble arrives.
The dreadful news finally comes: Colonials in the next county have been hanged, and Anne's husband has died from the shock of seeing his brother hanged. The white-haired crow hears the news and sniffs that the house is now hers. So much for religious piety and the fidelity of marriage. Soon the extended family gathers around her simple table for the reading of the will, each and every one hilariously monstrous. Boyd revels in this sort of delightful visual clowning. Bald Uncle Titus (Todd Waite) is pencil-thin and wilting over in his black coat; his block of a wife (Paul Hope) looks like a man; everyone else totters about bundled in dark clothes and their religious cruelty. They are, of course, horrified when Anne's renegade, cast-off son Richard (Mayberry) arrives to learn his part of the inheritance.
Strutting about the stark kitchen on his long sure legs, dismissing the remonstrations of his hard-hearted mother, Richard scoffs at her piety, declaring that he's become the devil's disciple. They are sorely shocked to discover that Richard is the inheritor of his father's entire estate.
At this point Shaw abandons his diatribe against the Puritans and sets into motion his formulaic innocent-man-goes-to-prison plot, which affords many opportunities to needle another group that irritated the Irish-born Shaw.
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During the second half of the play, the British become the clowns, and Shaw takes every opportunity to reveal just how inept he believed his English-born brethren to be. Conventional folks of any sort, whether rough-hewn religious ideologues or mannered king's men, rankled the free-thinking Shaw, who fought for women's rights and socialist principles that included the abolition of private property.
According to Shaw's logic, Richard, being the only man who will think for himself, is thus true and good. As much as he despises the old townspeople, Richard warns them about the British. When he visits the Reverend Anthony Anderson (James Black) to press upon him the seriousness of the situation, he finds himself alone with the pretty Judith Anderson (Teri Lamm) and is thus thought to be the reverend when the British arrive to cart the preacher away. Richard acts heroically and never lets on that he's not the cleric, leaving Judith in quite a moral dilemma. To make matters worse, when the real reverend returns and discovers what has happened, he flees like a coward.
What follows is a series of twists and turns. The characters manage to surprise us along the way, and they spout all sorts of wisdom, such as, "The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That's the essence of inhumanity."
A competent cast holds the happy production together. Especially strong is Waite, who does double duty as a ghoulish Puritan and as the rueful British General Burgoyne. But it is Mayberry who carries the show, and he does so with a good deal of swaggering charm, inspiring all to believe in Shaw's morality lesson: Ignore the clamor of the foolish crowd, follow your heart, and always do what's true and right.