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The Roxy Performing Arts Center in West Miami-Dade is often filled on weekends with children wearing leotards and hopeful expressions. That is perhaps to be expected. The place is a children's dance, acting, and voice lesson center.
But this past Sunday, something else was happening. And it drew a decidedly more adult set. New Theatre, which until recently was headquartered several miles to the east on Coral Gables's Laguna Street, was producing the world-premiere production of Twain and Shaw Do Lunch, a play based on the real-life meeting of two literary greats.
The seating in the new performance space — one of several in the Roxy complex and only a temporary home — is a bit more plentiful than it was at the troupe's former home, and the stage is larger. For this play, the space is done up like a conservative living room with yellow-ochre walls and floral upholstered furniture. It is — and I am not making this up — directed by New Theatre literary manager Steven Chambers and written by Los Angeles playwright Chambers Stevens. They are not the same guy.
Early on, the story introduces rotund George Bernard Shaw, played by Stephen Neal, who quickly paints his character as a jolly, clumsy, seemingly helpless fellow with impeccably dorky enunciation and boyish, calf-hugging knickers. He's joined by his wife, Charlotte (Pilar Uribe), a witty, competent matriarch who regards her husband with a mixture of admiration and amusement.
At the outset, the pair's chemistry already feels frayed. It doesn't help that both actors repeatedly tripped on their lines when I was there, giving the opening minutes a sort of nervous self-consciousness. The opening scene was supposed to have an air of tension — their dialogue was about Erica May Cotterill, a passionate (read: obsessive) young female writer with whom Shaw had exchanged suggestive letters. But their stumbling over words confused the matter.
As the plot rolls on, it's revealed that Cotterill had taken Shaw's advice to visit London and had arrived determined to have the great man for herself. In this story, Cotterill lands in the city the same day Twain is invited to the Shaws' home for lunch. This makes the play rich in slapstick secrecy as the couple tries to pretend everything is normal.
(In a talk with the audience after the performance, Stevens admitted Cotterill had actually arrived the day before the meeting of the literary minds. The playwright took artistic license and rearranged history in the interest of a juicier story.)
When Mark Twain enters the action, the audience feels like it can finally settle into the parlor along with the players. Bill Schwartz plays salty dog Twain with a quiet hilarity that had me laughing so loudly I was embarrassed. It's clear from the moment the character begins to speak which literary icon the playwright loves best: Each of Twain's lines was sharper and wittier than the last, and his hard-drinking, cee-gar-smoking, meat- and capitalism-loving manliness was unequivocally more attractive to both the audience and pants-wearing Mrs. Shaw than Shaw's socialist, teetotaling, vegetarian wimpiness. Even Twain's huge financial losses come off as nothing more than battle scars from a life of sensuous living and risk-taking.
It's unclear whether Schwartz calculatedly plays the aging Twain with tired jadedness or he is really just tired (he did, after all, recently finish playing a lead role in Zoetic Stage's Captiva at the Arsht Center). Regardless, his performance worked marvelously. Thanks to both the character's saucy, audacious lines and the actor's flawless delivery, Twain is easily the most memorable of the three characters.
That said, Uribe quickly warmed to her role after a shaky start, presenting an empowered, outspoken, and decidedly feminine first lady of literature. Though the actress was great at conveying charm and wit, her attempts at an Irish brogue were weak. Most of the time I couldn't identify the dialect's origin. Still, she was a pleasant presence onstage and brought believable poise to her role while infusing it with some cheekiness and even a sliver of sexuality.
Neal did a nice job playing the benign and seemingly inane author, which is the best the script would allow him to do. It's hard to believe, as the play tries to show, that the profoundly talented Shaw could have really been such a lame storyteller and incompetent human being.
But keeping in mind it's just historical fiction, the audience can imagine this work as a kind of live-action comic book in which the playwright (who named his son Twain) gets to see his favorite American author sock it to his famous British rival.