TWO BY SHAW, Writer’s Theatre Chicago, at Books on Vernon. Writer’s Theatre Chicago’s last production was a literate, compelling, if a bit histrionic play based on the life of the literate, compelling, histrionic poet, Anne Sexton. This time around, as if to prove they can also perform cooler, more comic, but no less literate material, the folks at Writer’s Theatre bring us two one acts by George Bernard Shaw, one written near the end of his writing life, the other near the beginning.

Perversely, they begin with the older and better of the two, a taunt two person one act, “The Village Wooing,” in which an Oxford educated writer is pursued by a shopgirl. In true Shaw fashion, it becomes clear that its white-collar writer not the shopgirl who would be improved by such a marriage. It turns out the life of shopkeeping in a village more challenging and fulfilling than the hack’s so-called life of the mind. The play brims with Shavian wit most of which survives performances that begin stiffly enough with forced sub- Masterpiece Theater accents and but which, as the play progresses, settle into a warm, likeable competence. Though Adrianne Cury and Charles Pecor never develop the kind of chemistry that makes their pairing seem inevitable or even believable, they do manage to keep Shaw’s comedy funny and don’t stumble when Shaw artfully reveals near the end of the play the beating hearts beneath his comic figures.

Even if you didn’t know that the second play of the evening, “Man of Destiny,” is one of Shaw’s early works, you probably could guess it from its windy dialogue and Shaw’s tendency to overexplain his clever plot. However, Adrianne Cury and Michael Halberstam, as a lady spy and Napoleon, perform together with so much chemistry, that even Shaw’s sometimes overwritten dialogue crackles. Set two days after Napoleon’s victory at Lodi, the plot concerns a matching of wits between Napoleon and devious spy who has tricked one of his Lieutenants into giving her a packet of important papers. As these two adepts cross swords, Shaw gives himself plenty of room to examine both Napoleon’s greatness as a tactician in war and peace and his potentially fatal flaws: his vanity, his fears, his perhaps unstable marriage. Halberstam delivers a wonderful performance as Napoleon, free of the bad french accents and the napoleonic tantrums. However, the play really belongs to Adrianne Cury, who takes a role Shaw wrote specifically for Ellen Terry, and makes it her own. This one-act ended all too quickly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alexander Guezentsvey.