Why WingSpan Theatre’s Letter-Reading Play, Dear Liar, Is a Write Off

Unless you’re a diehard George Bernard Shaw fanatic (and if you are, keep it to yourself), there’s little to recommend in WingSpan Theatre’s current Dear Liar at the Bath House. It’s a creaky old thing by the late Jerome Kilty, who wrote the play in the 1950s and got it to Broadway in 1960. More of a reading than a play, its two long acts consist of nothing but two actors reading aloud the florid correspondence over four decades between Shaw and British actress Stella Campbell, known professionally as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, as one was in those days. (Kilty’s play presaged A.R. Gurney’s dreadful Love Letters, coming to the Winspear next spring starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal.)

In Dear Liar, Allan Pollard plays Shaw, wearing a tidy beard and a plaid wool suit that fits him better than the lilting Irish accent he attempts. Lisa Fairchild is Mrs. Campbell, who was a star before she played Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s comedy Pygmalion. Fairchild doesn’t try to sound British, but she’s lovely in the flowing period dresses by costume designer Barbara C. Cox.

VIDEO: Mrs. Patrick Campbell on the Art of Acting:

Director Susan Sargeant has made a visually elegant production of Dear Liar, with a set design by Nick Brethauer that frames the Bath House Cultural Center acting space in claret-red curtains and columns decorated with pages of letters. Pollard and Fairchild sit at two dainty desks and stay there, which quickly gets monotonous. Devising a play around actors putting ink on stationery keeps the action far too stationary.

So many letters. Such formal language. Shaw, whom Mrs. Campbell called “Joey,” comes through in his missives as a witty curmudgeon whose sexless marriage (by pre-nuptial agreement) frees him to flirt from afar with the beautiful actresses he admires. (He also carried on a paper affair with the great Ellen Terry and others.) Mrs. Campbell saved all of Shaw’s letters in a hatbox under her bed in her Paris apartment. After her death in 1940, someone grabbed them just before the Nazis stormed the city. Shaw had saved her letters, too. They began to appear in published collections shortly after his death in 1950.

The first act of Dear Liar ends just before World War I, with Mrs. Campbell basking in the success of Pygmalion. A long section of that great play, later adapted into the musical My Fair Lady, is read aloud. Allan Pollard, who has a wooden gesture for every word, is even worse at portraying Henry Higgins than he is at being G. B. Shaw, but Fairchild manages to convey some of Eliza’s tough Cockney charm. The second act follows Mrs. Campbell to America, where she toured in Pygmalion and wrote to Shaw that the provincial audiences were upset that the word “Pygmalion” wasn’t spoken in the play. She tried and failed to make it in the movies in Hollywood. She ended up broke and alone. Shaw won a Nobel Prize in literature.

Few people write longhand letters on good paper anymore, much less save the ones received. Dear Liar, though plodding as a play, reminds us of the craft of the epistolary exchange, of the suspense there once was in waiting for a response and the delight in getting one. A retweet just isn’t the same.

Dear Liar continues through October 24 at the Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive (at Northcliff). Tickets $20-$22 at 214-675-6573 or wingspantheatre.com.

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