“The version of Heartbreak House we’re presenting for you returns us to Shaw’s original intent. He began writing Heartbreak House before WWI exploded, but withheld it until after the war due to the general outrage at him for making speeches and writing articles to attempt to discourage the conflict. He then re-wrote the play for its 1920 debut at NY’s Theatre Guild. The script I’ve assembled employs his original hand-written version along with the subsequent typed manuscripts, numerous letters with directives, and various production scripts he’d worked on or approved. He’d hoped to use the play as a warning, but then it was too late. Art as activism was his approach, and he had hoped to jolt the world out of its complacency. By the time the world saw the play, they were ready to forget all about war and so Shaw ended his published version as a wistful reminder of the devastation. To the best of our knowledge, this original version has never been produced.”
He Says: Heartbreak House Basks in the Glorious Humanity of the Theatrical Bomb Shelter
It doesn’t look like the Heartbreak House I vaguely remember from the last revival that I saw in 2006 at the American Airlines Theater starring Philip Bosco, Lily Rabe, Swoosie Kurtz, Bill Camp, and Laila Robins. Of that production, the New York Times suggested that Heartbreak House was Shaw’s “richest and saddest play about the follies of humanity” drenched in privilege, idleness and indifference, and I remember it as such. Proud, celebrated, dynamic, and seriously funny. In Gingold Theatrical Group’s valuable re-direction in the very intimate Lion Theatre atTheatre Row, the heartbreak and disillusionment survive the voyage arriving intact but altered, with a very different and less darkly disturbing sway. This production takes place not in a grand house modeled after a ship, as it was in the Robin Lefevre directed revival, but in some sort of fortified theatrical bunker/storage room. We find ourselves , in this wondrous and structurally sound revival, ushered forth into the basement of the Ambassadors Theatre, London, circa September 1940, sometime in the middle of World War II. We are handed a song book and an Air Raid Warning pamphlet instructing us all to take shelter below the stage of the Ambassadors Theatre and wait patiently for the All-Clear. Quickly, we are joined by the theatre troupe from up above and also from the theatre across the street, including a well voiced doorman, a quirky delightful stage manager, a pretty songbird from the crowd of nervous patrons, and a mad assortment of those theatrical types we call ‘stage actors’. All ready to distract with a sweet sing-along and an impromptu performance of Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Lucky for us, they all seem to know this tale and their lines well.
Once the parts are grabbed up and assigned with gusto by this eclectic and electric group that has gathered on stage (with a humorous telling nod to the stage manager’s strengths and weaknesses), we are magically and quite festively transported to the beautiful villa of Captain Shotover in Sussex, England, September 1914. Ellie Dunn, played by one of the sheltered audience members, who in turn is played by the Pretty and somewhat overly sincere Kimberly Immanuel (CSC’s Pacific Overtures), has arrived at the villa, courtesy of an invitation by the mistress of the house, Hesione Hushabye, played by a stage actress played by the glorious Karen Ziemba (Broadway’s Prince of Broadway, Vineyard’s Kid Victory). Ellie has comefor a relaxing meal with her new best friend, but first meets the master steerer of the house, Captain Shotover, played by the theater’s doorman, who is played by Raphael Nash Thompson (TFANA’s Pericles). He seems as oddly distracted and obstinate as he is well-voiced and regal, not embracing the polite manners of the time and place, but somehow managing to find a warmth in their initial and future engagement. Ellie is in Heartbreak House to deepen her friendship with the appealing Hesione, but her host’s reasoning for the invitation is most definitely a different sailing course all together. Hesione wants to talk Ellie out of a marriage engagement to the brittle older business man, Mangan played delightfully by Derek Smith (Broadway’s The Green Bird). Marriage should not be about money, convenience, or a feeling of appreciation, she confides to Ellie, pointing out that somewhere in Ellie’s eyes, she can see that passion does exist, but not for her intended husband. Ellie has a different opinion, one that is altered and adjusted while residing under the spell of The Captain’s Heartbreak House. “If I can’t have love, that’s no reason why I should have poverty.”
Lady Ariadne Utterword then arrives after a long absence far away from her home and the villa, hoping for a warm familial welcome from her father, the Captain, and her sister, Hesione. Lady Utterword, played majestically by the chorus girl from upstairs, who is in turn portrayed by the phenomenally funny and rich Alison Fraser (Off-Broadway’s First Daughter Suite, Squeamish) wants her kiss on the cheek from someone in recognition of her arrival, but no one seems all that inclined to give it to her. She can talk and talk without hearing a word it seems, turning a brilliantly narcissistic blind ear to all, that is except for the dashing heartbreaker of the house, Hector Hushabye, Hesione’s husband, played with a flamboyant flutter by Tom Hewitt (PMP’s The Sting), who comes strutting into the room in a never-ending wave of intrepid arrivals. The maid, a gloriously tart Guiness tries to keep all the waters flowing smoothly in a hysterically quirky portrayal by the theatrical stage manager, who is, in turn, played by the dazzlingly funny Jeff Hiller (Off-Broadway’s Bright Colors and Bold Patterns). Hiller, by way of the poorly trained stage manager, adds his overdone accents to some other secondary roles, such as the burglar, who isn’t what he appears to be, and the brother-in-law of the enchanting and needy Ariandne, Randall Utterword, who can barely see his own folly. The plot only gets dizzier when Mazzini Dunn, Ellie’s sweet-natured father, played effortlessly by the wonderful Lenny Wolpe (Broadway’s Drowsy Chaperone, York’s Marry Harry), joins the crew and, not surprisingly is deemed a thief and a pirate, forever trying to convince the Captain of his kinder lineage.
It’s somewhat madcap, this journey to Heartbreak House, one that carries a vastly different albeit vibrant view of the foreboding horizon. Having the talented cast play an assortment of characters who in a quick change of garb play the roles in Shaw’s tragicomedy, is a slice of pure historical genius. With this arrangement, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes“, a subtitle that gets left off the roster here, but in historic manner refers to the style of Anton Chekhov and the cultured leisured class of England, brings with it a vaudvillian flavor of presentation, peppered with spirited sing-along moments, that freshens up the 1919 play with joy in its deliverance. The crew is trying whole heartedly to distract the nervous crowd from the sirens above that have ushered us all into the basement. They want, most desperately to lighten the mood, and this desire gives the actors license to be a bit more broadly funny and deliciously engaging. Most rise to the cause, although Immanuel seems to be caught somewhere else, maybe in a more cautiously straight forward production of Heartbreak House than the one in front of us. Her Ellie leans and languishes on a less playful ship that is sailing on some other body of water, directed by a different Captain. But showgirl Fraser and stage manager Hiller, along with the actors played by Ziemba and Hewitt get the balance just right, rocking the boat but never falling overboard. They are a delight and a joy to behold. And a distraction worthy of our attention.
In a telling note from the director:
A jolt is definitely what is needed in today’s landscape, just as it was back then. As directed with neatness and uniqueness by David Staller (Off-Broadway’s Man and Superman), the abstract warning sings along the edges of the sand-bagged basement of the Ambassadors Theatre, designed with thoughtfulness and an exacting attention to detail by Brian Prather (Off-Broadway’s Daniel’s Husband), with superb costuming by Barbara A. Bell (Irish Rep’s It’s a Wonderful Life), excellent lighting by Christina Watanabe (EST/Youngblood’s Dido of Idaho), and exacting sound design by Toby Algya (59E59’s Knives in Hens). We lose our way in this revitalized realization from Staller, forgetting about where this old ship is heading and where the other more serious revivals landed, and invest our attention to the one in front of us. The romantic and telling spell of the house is definitely more playful and comically here, but maybe in that kind and distracting play a bit of the criticism gets lost in the rough watersurrounding this revival, especially in the dark fumbling of Shaw’s dramatic ending. I couldn’t tell where we were or where the dramas were colliding and exploding because in this haunted house of heartbreak, the crew greets destruction with a muddled awareness, and the lines of play–acting and bomb–sheltering gets blurred in the final moments. It’s a tad confusing, to say the least, but this nod to the overarching theme lands; that those in power, the cultured and leisured elite, personified by this complicated family, are failing to safely navigate society through rough watered destruction on all fronts. The British gentry, once spirited and well-meaning, are casually sailing toward jagged rocks basically because of corruption and indifference. It’s a concept that is powerfully provocative in this modern day and age as we watch the typhoon of our own history approaching, and even though Shaw was referring to World War I, this production and I are not.