`The Devil's Disciple' still `just the play for America'

The Devil's Disciple Melodrama by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Stephen Porter. Starring Philip Bosco, Victor Garber, Roxanne Hart, Rosemary Murphy, Remak Ramsay. IN the spirited revival at the Broadway Circle in the Square, ``The Devil's Disciple'' proves once more to be what George Bernard Shaw said it would be: ``just the play for America, as it occurs as an incident in the War of Independence.''

Richard Mansfield and America made the 1897 comic melodrama a success before it acquired popularity in England. The new production staged by Stephen Porter reaffirms the play's continuing appeal and may well add to actor Victor Garber's accumulating awards.

As Shaw noted in the preface to ``Three Plays for Puritans,'' his New England colonial melodrama did not contain ``a single even passable novel incident. Every old patron of the Adelphi would ... recognize the reading of the will, the oppressed orphan finding a protector, the arrest, the heroic sacrifice, the court-martial, the scaffold, the reprieve at the last moment, as he recognizes beefsteak pudding on the bill of fare at his restaurant.''

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And ``The Devil's Disciple'' is melodramatic beefsteak pudding with Shavian sauce.

The pudding begins to steam with the reading of the late Mr. Dudgeon's will in the presence of all the family, including disreputable Dick Dudgeon. Dick's self-righteous relatives - and particularly Rosemary Murphy's shrewish Mrs. Dudgeon - are shocked at Dick's scapegrace ways, shocked at his proclaiming himself the ``devil's disciple,'' and even more shocked when he is made his father's principal beneficiary. These caricatured Puritans are pushovers for their impudent kinsman.

Dick's relationships with Parson Anthony Anderson (Remak Ramsay), and the parson's much younger wife, Judith (Roxanne Hart), are considerably more complex.

The complications multiply, and the melodramatic plot thickens when Dick allows British officers to arrest him in the mistaken belief that he is the parson. The last-minute rescue occurs only after Shaw has given the melodrama its splendid comic fillip in the court-martial scenes, during which Dick taunts the unfailingly civil ``Gentlemanly Johnny'' Burgoyne, played with aristocratic finesse by Philip Bosco.

Mr. Garber's Dick Dudgeon is the very model of a heroic Shavian antihero, whether denouncing the cruelty of his relatives, responding with a new respect for Mr. Ramsay's admirably upright Anderson, or fending off the smitten Judith as her hatred turns to sentimental infatuation. Miss Hart manages to make Judith both disarmingly touching and faintly ridiculous.

The parallel lines of melodrama and comedy are entertainingly sustained by Mr. Stephens's actors. Notable among the assorted Dudgeons are Adam LeFevre's loutish Christy and Marguerite Kelly's poor little Essie. As Lawyer Hawkins, Richard Clarke settles legal matters with dispatch, and Bill Moor particularizes the Shavian lampoon of a dunderheaded British officer.

Designer Zack Brown's costumes contrast sober colonial homespuns with the scarlet uniforms of the British redcoats. His simple settings feature white-scrubbed plank floors. Curt Ostermann lighted the revival.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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