A sparkling play about gentrification is unfolding now on Massachusetts Avenue near the Convention Center. It comes on like a romantic comedy: A handsome and well-off young man meets an interested and moneyed young women. Their match is blocked, oddly, by the economics of slum housing.
The play is George Bernard Shaw’s 1890s “Widowers’ Houses,” and its subject is still with us; lobbying for “affordable housing” is part and parcel of any D.C. redevelopment scheme. The Washington Stage Guild trusts us to notice this without tossing the characters into 21st-century clothes. The actors are wily with the punchlines, and Shaw’s social dissection is still hard to refute.
The show is devilishly anchored by Lawrence Redmond as Sartorius, the father of the would-be bride. Sartorius wants the engagement: The groom, Harry Trench, comes from London’s upper crust. The marriage is brokered like a property deal, and the negotiations are surprisingly juicy. They’re played with a veneer of worldly good manners by Redmond and by an equally nimble Michael Glenn as a sort of agent for the young man.
The canny Sartorius is a rich role for Redmond, and this is a good showbiz story: Redmond took over the large part late in production. He has quickly taken to Sartorius’s silky public face, to his harsh tactics as London’s largest slumlord, and to the precise twists of logic as Shaw casts his scrutinizing light on poverty and privilege.
Not that there’s a notably heroic quality to Laura Giannarelli’s production at the intimate Undercroft Theatre. It’s simply well balanced, with each actor colorfully putting forth self-interests and contradictions. Madeleine Farrington is winsome as the damsel Blanche, but Farrington is also quite good when it turns out that Blanche has her father’s predatory nature. Steven Carpenter is the greasy minion Lickcheese, fired by Sartorius but returning with a dark deal that could ruin or save everything, and Scott Harrison is the swain with liberal leanings whose naivete is shattered. Each actor is fashionably costumed to 19th-century London taste by Sigridur Johannesdottir. It’s a swell night of Shaw.
Another neatly acted Irish comedy about the rich and the poor is just a few blocks away. Keegan Theatre has put a nice polish on the 1990s “Stones in His Pockets,” Marie Jones’s two-person comedy about rural Irish townspeople coping with a big budget Hollywood film crew.
It’s an actors’ showcase, and Josh Sticklin and Matthew J. Keenan playfully embody everyone from town elders to an American starlet. Keenan is particularly flexible, playing regular guy Jake one moment, then shifting posture and voice to become the oldest surviving extra from “The Quiet Man” or a lovelorn production assistant; each glance and inflection is amusingly high-def. Sticklin’s good, too, and hilariously persuasive as the American starlet, especially when she’s limbering up with yoga.
A pub scene seems to bustle even with only the two actors, and the production’s appealing style includes a live video feed projected on a large screen whenever the film crew needs a shot of the extras. This is reliably good for a laugh, but director Abigail Isaac Fine shows her mettle by also gently fleshing out the darker shades of Jones’s showy, gloomy, wry Irish script.
Widowers' Houses, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Laura Giannarelli. Set, Carl F. Gudenius and Kirk Kristlibas; lights, Marianne Meadows; sound, Marcus Darnley. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 22 at the Undercroft Theater, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tickets $50-$60. Call 240-582-0050 or visit stageguild.org.
Stones in His Pockets, by Marie Jones. Directed by Abigail Isaac Fine. Set, Matthew J. Keenan; projections, G. Ryan Smith; lights, Megan Thrift; sound design, Dan Deiter. About two hours. Through Oct. 15 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets $35-$45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.