FANNY’S FIRST PLAY, ShawChicago, at Ruth Page Center for the Arts. This 1911 play was one of George Bernard Shaw’s greatest commercial triumphs: it had a longer opening run on the West End than anything he wrote at his creative peak. Yet today Fanny’s First Play seems a dull effort: Shaw shelved his preoccupations with women’s suffrage and the horrors of war to send up the populist entertainments of the era, represented by a play within the play–Fanny’s low farce, in which four people from different stations in life discover they’ve all been in prison for a fortnight.

Fanny’s script doesn’t jibe with the mannered parlor comedy of Shaw’s framing sequences. Borrowing a page from Moliere and anticipating critical commentary on his own work, he has theater critic Trotter grouse that “all Shaw’s characters are himself: mere puppets stuck up to spout Shaw.”

Under Robert Scogin’s direction, the always excellent ShawChicago ensemble delivers a concert reading that’s far too good for the material. Still, seasoned actors like Tony Dobrowolski (as Fanny’s father, the pompous Count O’Dowda) and Terence Gallagher (playing both the narrator and a droll butler) remind us that the worst Shaw has to offer still has value.