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The Devil's in the Details 

George Bernard Shaw tackles Brit reserve during the American Revolution.

Wednesday, Nov 26 2008
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If you went purely by the big moral tacked on to the end, you could say this George Bernard Shaw play is about how our true character rises to the surface in the moment of reckoning. Yet the real star of this show is Shaw's favorite target for ridicule: British temperament, which is always polite and emotionally reserved, no matter the circumstances. Despite the fact that The Devil's Disciple is set in America during the Revolutionary War — his only play set there — he still finds a way to poke fun at this particular stereotype.

The first act gives barely a hint of the English roast to come in the second. Instead, Shaw immerses us in the life of the Dudgeon family as they cope with the death of the family patriarch and the return of the mysterious and devilish elder son, Richard. Director Barbara Oliver and the skilled cast keep the action moving nicely, including a beautifully awkward encounter between Richard and the minister's wife over a civilized cup of tea. But it isn't until Richard lands in the hands of the Redcoat army that this production takes flight as Shaw harnesses that unique British gift for swiftly pinpointing incompetence, particularly their own.

English General Burgoyne, played with simple grace and devastatingly funny timing by Warren David Keith, has no time for Richard's deeply felt political statements. Burgoyne believes that martyrdom is little more than the way a man can "become famous without ability." He simply wants to get through the "disagreeable business" of the court martial so he can hang Richard "in a perfect workmanlike and agreeable way." What's more, Burgoyne recognizes that the tide of the Revolutionary War is turning — less through the zeal and dedication of the American militias, and more through the numbing bureaucracy back in London.

You won't win any prizes for guessing who wins out in the end. But if any "lesson" is taken from this entertaining play, it is in Shaw's subtle insight into how wars are truly fought — and barely lost or won.

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Molly Rhodes

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