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Theatre in Review: Heartbreak House (Gingold Theatrical Group/Theatre Row)

Kimberly Immanuel, Raphael Nash Thompson. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Heartbreak House is a decaying country manse where the willful members of the Shotover family take part in shameless intrigues, violating social norms and behaving in a beastly manner to their put-upon guests while remaining utterly oblivious to the outside world -- until it comes crashing down on them. In George Bernard Shaw's description, the house resembles an oceangoing vessel, a symbol of the ship of state, helplessly adrift and unable to chart a sensible course, even as bombs begin to fall. Written before World War I, it was intended as a warning to British society, in which -- in Shaw's view -- the intellectual classes had retreated into a collective life of creature comforts and navel-gazing, leaving the hard work of politics to those deficient in moral or aesthetic sense. Held back until the cessation of hostilities -- and sent to America for its world premiere -- the play was transformed by the calendar into a look back at a glittering world slipping into the abyss. Subtitled "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes," it is Shaw's homage to Chekhov and, on its own brittle, high-comedy terms, it is an evocative portrait of an elite society paralyzed by its contrarian impulses.

Regrettably, that sense of paralysis has drifted into David Staller's production, which is hobbled by an unfortunate framing device: We are meant to be sitting in London's Ambassadors Theatre in (roughly) 1944, ready to see the revue Sweet and Low -- a real show of the period, which starred Hermione Gingold, namesake of the Gingold Theatrical Group. However, we are in the theatre's basement, for the so-called Baby Blitz is on and air raid sirens have been heard. The cast of Sweet and Low endeavors to rally our spirits with a group sing-along of "Pack Up Your Troubles." Never mind that such is my least favorite form of theatrical activity; only a few minutes into the production, I began to wonder when, if ever, we might get around to Heartbreak House.

Eventually, it is decided that, since we must remain in the basement for some time, we will be entertained with a reading of Shaw's play; why this collection of revue artists -- showgirls and the like -- suddenly take on Fabian tendencies must remain mysterious. But despite Brian Prather's perfectly good two-level scenic design -- filled with Japanese lanterns, costume racks, and a cardboard moon, among other amusements -- the revised setting proves to be distinctly unhelpful. Heartbreak House is one of the earliest examples of the state-of-the-nation play -- a genre at which the British have excelled ever since -- and the elimination of the house, a grandly eccentric residence in need of repair and a symbol of wayward Britain, diminishes Shaw's central metaphor. In addition, the busy, detailed set devours so much of the Lion Theatre stage that Staller is forced at times to place as many as six actors in a row, creating some remarkably awkward tableaux.

The best productions of Heartbreak House are informed by a mounting sense of disorder, of imminent chaos. As the bad behavior multiplies, so should a faint, but persistent, sense of impending danger. Permanently etched into my memory is the 1983 Broadway revival, in which Rosemary Harris and Dana Ivey, as Hesione Hushabye and Ariadne Utterword, the daughters of the household, preyed on their guests with delighted perversity while Amy Irving, as the play's ingenue, Ellie Dunn, revealed many layers of steel and skepticism, and Rex Harrison, as Captain Shotover, the house's owner, presided -- his eyes often closed -- over everything like a half-conscious sibyl counting the minutes until perdition comes.

Alas, Staller's staging has a twinkle in its eye so pronounced that the play's darker intentions are thoroughly erased. This is especially true of Raphael Nash Thompson's Captain Shotover, who is rather too determined to be charming and reads his lines with such insistence -- struggling to turn each of them into a memorable Shavian aphorism, suitable for hanging on one's wall -- that their humor is killed off. Also missing is the character's aura of mystery -- among other things, Shotover is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil in Zanzibar --- and his ability to confuse others with an apparent display of befuddlement. Nearly as dismaying is Derek Smith as Boss Mangan, the industrialist who condescends to marry Ellie, the daughter of one of his employees, but who ends up thoroughly unmanned by her, aided by Hesione and Ariadne. By the time this trio is done with him, he should be crying out for mercy, his dignity thoroughly shredded. "Am I never to have the last word?" he thunders at one point, but Smith never manages much more than a mild sense of outrage.

The chief delight of this production is Alison Fraser. Appearing in the prologue as a showgirl with fountains of marabou seemingly sprouting from her head, she is riotously right as the "rigidly conventional" Ariadne, who appears after years of globetrotting with her diplomat husband, furious to find that nobody recognizes her. Delivering her lines in a voice jagged with privilege -- she sounds exactly like a rusty hinge in need of a little 3-in-One Oil -- she offers her cheek to be kissed with a clinician's lack of warmth and rattles through a long, expository speech with masterful ease. Yet she is not be crossed, as when she verbally destroys Randall, the erring brother-in-law who shows up on the premises. ("You are the most uninteresting man on earth! You can't even gossip about anything but yourself and your grievances and your ailments and the people who have offended you!") Such high comedy technique is to be cherished, no matter the circumstances.

Everyone else -- all of them usually highly capable -- fall somewhere in the middle. Karen Ziemba has her moments as Hesione, who toys with the lives of others as a pastime ("Now I am going off to fascinate somebody") as does Tom Hewitt as her husband, Hector, a serial seducer and habitual liar. He has a charming touch when he picks up a human skull, assuming a Hamlet-esque air. A certain anarchic energy is missing from both performances, however. Jeff Hiller's comic timing helps with the role of the easily cowed Randall, although, in a bit of tiresome stunt casting, he is made to appear also as the family's tart-tongued housekeeper and the burglar who sets the plot on its ear. Kimberly Immanuel's Ellie is too mousy at first, rendering implausible her later transformation into a formidably independent thinker. Lenny Wolpe is solid as Ellie's sunny, naturally charitable father. Overall, there's a general listlessness about the staging that keeps the comedy from exploding. The actors are not helped by frequent interruptions for more sing-alongs, including, at the performance I attended, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Smiles."

The rest of the production is solid, including Barbara A. Bell's attractive period gowns; Christina Watanabe's lighting, which reliably guides us in and out of the framing scenes; and Toby Algya's sound design, which includes a radio broadcast of dance-band music, bells, a flute, sirens, and bombs falling on the estate.

This is a slightly modified version of Shaw's text, pieced together by Staller to make a fair copy of the prewar version. It will be of interest to scholars, but the differences are not glaringly obvious. Working with other companies, Staller has done some excellent work, including what is probably the best Major Barbara I've ever seen. Here, he is tripped up by his concept; the idea of staging Heartbreak House in wartime London must have seemed incendiary, but the effort has backfired: The framing device adds nothing, and the direction is distressingly staid. "Is this England or is it a madhouse?" demands Hector at one point; this time out, the madness is too muted for its own good. -- David Barbour

(10 September 2018)

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