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At Shaw Fest, a light play about a heavy look

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – More money, more problems. More independence, more happiness.

At least that’s the way it went for Kate (Moya O’Connell), the charming if smarmy main character in J.M. Barrie’s “The Twelve-Pound Look,” a seemingly weightless one-act in the Court House Theatre that sent the chattering crowd out into the drizzle with huge grins on their faces.

The production is the latest in a series of Shaw Festival shows that predictably unfold, like ancient pieces of origami, to reveal some clever variation on the same well-creased theme: It ain’t easy being rich.

Barrie’s play, which explores the boredom-inducing effects of money, centers on the psychic travails of a woman who leaves her rich but soulless husband behind for a menial job as a typist. By a fluke of the sort that only happens in the minds of playwrights, that aloof man (the reliably haughty Patrick Galligan) unwittingly hires his ex-wife to type replies to hundreds of letters congratulating him on his coming ordination as a knight.

All this pours over the audience like a puff of perfume after a jaunty period song about the folly of man sung with consummate skill by Neil Barclay and Harveen Sandhu, who play the butler and maid in Sir and Lady Sims’ well-appointed house. (William Schmuk’s sumptuous set and costumes point up the period feeling without making it feel inaccessibly snooty.)

When Sir Sims and Kate are left alone by Lady Sims (Kate Besworth), the ugly truth comes out in vicious dribbles. Successful as Sims might have been, and entitled as Kate was as his wife to a life of social advantages and nice furniture, his success was not enough for her restless soul and intellect.

This revelation was not merely intolerable to Sims, but utterly incomprehensible. Like Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock” or Noel Coward’s ageless creation Garry Essendine, Harry Sims cannot understand how any woman could fail to appreciate his profound allure. But his core belief about himself – that having money is better than having charm or substance – crashes hard upon the rocks of Kate’s pragmatism, and each collision produces a louder torrent of laughter.

“You were a good husband, according to your lights,” Kate says in her practiced, imperious tone. “You had only one quality, Harry, success. You had it so strong that it swallowed all the others.”

As Kate, O’Connell is delightful. She knows the biggest laughs lie in the space between her emotionless behavior and Harry’s frustration that she feels nothing for him, and she exploits that dynamic by growing cooler in inverse proportion to his mounting outrage. Galligan, who specializes in finely tuned bluster, is perfectly cast as Harry, flipping his lid in the most aristocratic way possible until finally losing his cool altogether.

Lezlie Wade’s direction deserves credit for its perfect pacing and its simple and effective transitions, from that charming opening song to the beautifully executed and balanced final moment of the play. Meditations on the meaning of success don’t come in much prettier packages than this.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com