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Theatre Review: Widowers' Houses

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, April 5, 2013

George Bernard Shaw was a novice playwright when this script, titled "Widowers' Houses," premiered in 1892. It begins as a comedy of upper class manners, with a handsome young man and an attractive young woman meeting by chance while touring Europe. They flirt. They kiss. It looks like he might propose. And then he hesitates. It's almost like a comedy by Oscar Wilde, whose witty plays were deliriously popular at the time.

But then we get to know the young lady's father. It turns out he's the penny-pinching owner of the shabbiest, dirtiest tenements in town... and he never fixes anything.

Sartorius: One pound four for repairs to Number 13! What does this mean?

Lickcheese: Well, sir, it was a staircase on the third floor. It was downright dangerous. There weren't but three whole steps in it, and no handrail. I thought it best to put a few boards in it.

Sartorius: Boards!

Lickcheese: Yes, sir.

Sartrorius: Boards? Firewood! They will burn every stick of it! You have spent 24 schillings of my money on firewood for them!"

The guy's a dead ringer for Ebenezer Scrooge - the significant difference being that this fellow has a daughter, on whom he lavishes the best of everything. Naturally, Shaw seizes this opportunity to take social satire to the next level. When the smart young suitor belatedly realizes he's about to marry the pampered child of London's most notorious slumlord, he poses a very delicate question:

Trench: Blanche, are you fond of money?

Blanche: Very! Are you going to give me any? (Laughter).

At least she's candid! Which is more than can be said for most of the devious characters in this delicious satire -- they speak glowingly of good manners and breeding while they quietly serve their own selfish ends. Exposing hypocrisy in high places was one of Shaw's favorite games. And this well-acted small production by California Stage may be the only chance you'll ever get to see this rarely-staged play. If erudite humor is your thing, don't miss this opportunity.

"Widowers' Houses" continues at California Stage in midtown Sacramento through April 28th.

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