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Theater Review: “Wives & Wits” at Washington Stage Guild

Two one-act plays by George Bernard Shaw explore the tricky nature of love and courtship.

Nick DePinto, Rana Kay, Dawn Thomas, and Michael Glenn in Overruled. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

The snooty guidebook writer and the prattling shopgirl seated on the cruise ship deck next to each other couldn’t be more different—and Mr. Guidebook couldn’t be any more annoyed by his shipmate’s relentless chatter. Naturally, they’re prime candidates to eventually fall in love.

“Z” and “A”, as they’re called in the script, are the main foils featured in Village Wooing, one of two one-act plays by George Bernard Shaw currently being staged by Washington Stage Guild, the city’s Shaw tribute band, if you will. The company has paired Wooing with the campy Overruled, with a different director taking the helm for each play.

Village Wooing is the more substantive of the two works, and while its “opposites attract” motif might sound like a romantic-comedy cliché, the play succeeds because the pair’s relationship evolves convincingly, if rapidly. The audience transitions from seeing Z (Rana Kay) as exasperating and annoying (she really won’t let up on A, who’s in full workaholic mode on the cruise) to irresistibly charming. Likewise, it takes a while to see the prickly A (Michael Glenn)—who at times feels like the long-lost, slightly-less-pratty cousin of Shaw’s iconic Henry Higgins—through Z’s more appreciative eyes.

Kay and Glenn, for their part, have a crackling chemistry that’s as palpable when they’re at each others’ throats as it is when they’re warming to each others’ charms. Shaw’s play stretches out the courtship a bit far in the third scene, but director Laura Giannarelli does her best to keep things well paced.

While the direction of Village Wooing is pretty straightforward, Overruled, which starts off the show, is presented in more of an over-the-top fashion. Director Alan Wade treats the play as a borderline farce, and as a result it takes a few minutes to settle into the performers’ rhythm. Overruled finds Gregory (Nick DePinto) propositioning a Mrs. Juno (Kay again), and it’s clear early on that someone’s being salacious, but it takes a while to unravel the intricacies of who’s married, who’s interested, and what’s going to come of all the posturing—particularly when another would-be couple, Sibthorpe (Glenn) and Mrs. Lunn (Dawn Thomas), arrive on the scene.

Overruled’s premise might wear thin over an hour if not for Shaw’s witty wordplay, which provides quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. “Our house is always full of women who are in love with my husband and men who are in love with me,” says the arch Mrs. Lunn. “We encourage it because it’s pleasant to have company.” Thomas gives Mrs. Lunn a detached, world-weary air, which contrasts nicely with the excitable and persistent Sibthorpe, the character through whom Shaw gamely mocks stereotypical British sensibilities. DePinto is just self-aware enough to save Gregory, a foppish mama’s boy, from ridiculousness. All in all, both Overruled and Village Wooing ably demonstrate courtship as a kind of dance, and both directors prove to be able choreographers.

Wives & Wits runs through May 20 at the Undercroft Theatre. Tickets ($20 to $40) are available through the Stage Guild’s website.

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