George Bernard Shaw is a world renowned British playwright, a literary figure whose impressive body of work lists several novels and more than 50 plays including Pygmalion (1912), which was turned into the perfectly sublime musical My Fair Lady. At the time of his death in 1950 he was considered by many to be one of the greatest playwrights in the English language. His plays are filled with wit and are striking because of his comments on contemporary issues and values that encourage the audience to become engaged in evaluating the world.
Roundabout Theatre Company is presenting a handsome production of Shaw’s 1919 classic Heartbreak House that appears as timely today as when it was first produced. Written just prior to World War I the play’s observations on a self involved society spiraling out of control in the face of incumbent disasters seems even more relevant today with our conflicting values and ongoing war . Our world is besieged not only by war, but also poverty, terrorists, global warming, natural disasters, and now the chilling realization that North Korea has recently developed nuclear power. The play often considered Chekhovian in nature; because of the playwright’s emphasis on the pre war atmosphere is one of Shaw’s finest.
The story is peopled with diverse complex layered characters, but ultimately not easy to do. The adults in his story are like a bunch of gifted articulate children having a devilishly good time in the face of looming danger, but no one is what they seem to be. The characters are like puppets in his skillful hands full of surprises sprouting brilliant ideas and observations. The style needs to have a wackiness bordering on farce even tripping over the edge, but always remaining grounded in truth with many real moments. This crazy house is symbolic of the world and everyone wants to get out of it.
Set in the country manor house of Captain Shotover (Phillip Bosco), an 88 year old wise sage who is secretly developing explosives, and run by his charming free spirited daughter Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz), an extravagant bohemian with a temperamental nature and a keen intelligent wit, the story actual revolves around the young Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe). She a strong willed yet naïve young women, who has come to the bewildering house in hopes of cementing her engagement to the older Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), an aggressive businessman, but is secretly in love with the debonair Hector (Byron Jennings), a Casanova she shockingly discovers is Hesione’s husband. Hesione herself is determined to abort Ellie’s loveless engagement to Mangan amidst all sorts of wild discoveries.
The story becomes the education of Ellie and depends on her underlying naiveté. Thrown into the house are Lady Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins), Shotover’s conventional daughter and Hesion’s sister, who neither has seen in many years, and her absurd narcissistic husband Randall Utterword (Gareth Saxe). There is also Mazzini Dunn, Elle’s humble father, who has been outwitted by Boss Mangan, and Nurse Guinness (Jenny Sterlin), who brazenly does her job caring for Shotover.The play ends in a blaze of explosive air raid attacks with impending doom that threatens their very existence leaving us to question what will happen to their world.
The evening has been wonderfully designed. The set by John Lee Beatty is reminiscent of an old shipping vessel floundering at sea. The costumes by Jane Greenwood display character beautifully with lushly flamboyant fabrics.Director Robin Lefevre has wisely emphasized the romantic attachments and animated viewpoints of Shaw’s characters. He, however, has not encouraged the actors to go far enough in displaying the startling idiosyncrasy inherent in these lunatic dreamers.
As the story progresses, they become increasingly aware that liberation can only be achieved through the destruction of their world as they know it, and their behaviors need to become a crescendo of madness in an attempt to disguise their true nature. The accomplished actors deliver polished performances that feel strident and often measured rather than lived in. The life is rushed instead of manic and we are conscience of their skill, but not moved or involved.
Much is very funny, because of the clever writing instead of the thrill of discovering. Ultimately the evening is rather tepidly dull instead of exciting and scathingly funny.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Heartbreak House opened October 11, 2006 on Broadway at American Airline Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue. Tickets are available by calling 212-719-1300, online at Roundabout Theatre, or at the box office.