Monday, September 10, 2018

73 (2018-2018): HEARTBREAK HOUSE (seen September 5, 2018)

"Let's Put on a Show"

New York revivals of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House are relatively rare. Rarer still are revivals of any Shaw play inspired by noteworthy directorial gimmicks. Shaw himself was particularly keen against liberties being taken with his scripts, as Lawrence Langner’s G.B.S. and the Lunatic makes abundantly clear. However, with Shaw long dead (but possibly squirming a bit, if not actually turning, in his grave), director David Staller’s revival for the Gingold Theatrical Group, which specializes in G.B.S, has ignored the playwright’s control-freak tendencies by goosing the play within a lightly entertaining, if questionably necessary, premise. 
Karen Ziemba, Kimberly Immanuel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The production imagines that a show at London’s Ambassadors Theatre in 1940 is disrupted by the blitz, forcing the actors and audience to move to the basement. There, gathered amid the sandbags, props, costumes, and various theatrical paraphernalia on Brian Prather's simulated makeshift set, the cast distracts us with stiff upper lips and lots of jolly good English cheer. Wearing the attractive Edwardian costumes of Barbara A. Bell, and smartly lit by Christine Watanabe, they offer not only singalongs but a comically spirited version of Shaw’s play, its contents resonating with contemporary relevance.
Karen Ziemba, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Tom Hewitt (seated), Kimberly Immanuel, Lenny Wolpe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Assisted by period-looking programs (“programmes,” I should say), providing air raid warnings, period adverts, and the lyrics to nostalgic English songs, we join the actors to sing “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Smiles,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and similar ditties. This, of course, helps add several additional minutes to Shaw’s lengthy two and a half hour talkfest, whose prolixity eventually grows tiresome. As we wait for the All Clear siren, we view what Staller calls “Shaw’s most vital paean to resistance and perseverance against tyranny.”
Tom Hewitt, Kimberly Immanuel. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The script itself is Staller’s revised version of Shaw’s original, based on his original handwritten manuscript and subsequent Shavian documents. (A note from Shaw to Hermione Gingold, in the script, suggests where the production’s framing device came from.)  It would take a Shaw scholar to note the revisions but the play retains the essence of the standard version, published in 1919 and premiered on Broadway in a 1920 Theatre Guild production before being seen in London in 1921. Shaw was notorious for not wanting a word cut; when Orson Welles produced it for the Mercury Theatre in 1938 and couldn’t induce the playwright to make changes, he raged that “The play’s not good enough to cut.”
Alison Fraser, Tom Hewitt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Heartbreak House, Shaw’s “Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” was his attempt to write a “Chekhovian” tragicomedy; there’s very little here, though, that suggests Chekhov, although Oscar Wilde isn’t far away. The playwright’s verbal wit and mental pyrotechnics predominate in a play that has very little plot and is essentially a series of theme-laced speeches and dialogue, emanating from a group of appealing characters. Sex, politics, colonialism, capitalism, and truth are among the issues racing by. A 1920 critic noted, “The total effect of the play is a disillusioned and bitter picture of the moral slackness of liberal England in the face of the war’s challenge.” Others believed Europe itself was the play’s main target. 
Kimberly Immanuel, Raphael Nash Thompson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The action is set in 1914 in the titular, shiplike, Sussex mansion of the rum-drinking Captain Shotover (Raphael Nash Thompson), Shaw’s Life Force, an octogenarian creator of destructive inventions (which include intimations of the atom bomb), where he lives with his daughter, Hesione Hushaby (Karen Ziemba), and her vain husband, Hector (Tom Hewitt). The house represents the foundering ship of state its inhabitants are unable to control, those forces that led to World War I.
Raphael Nash Thompson, Kimberly Immanuel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A weekend house party draws together a representative cross-section of English society, most with no clear sense of their purpose in life. Young Ellie Dunn (Kimberly Immanuel), daughter of businessman Mazzini Dunn (Lenny Wolpe), whose “education” is at the play’s core, is dismayed to learn that the man she really loves is the philandering Hector. He himself flirts with Shotover’s other daughter, the beautiful Lady Ariadne Utterwood (Alison Fraser). 

Ellie proclaims she wants to marry the old captain. Capitalism—represented by Boss Mangan (Derek Smith), the tycoon whose enterprises Mazzini Dunn runs—is seen as of little avail in saving England, Shotover pontificates on Britain’s heading for a shipwreck, a burglar (Jeff Hiller), who is more than he seems, is caught, and an air raid (“Beethoven music”) is launched, killing the burglar and Mangan but thrilling, then disappointing, the rest.
Derek Smith,Raphael Nash Thompson (rear), Karen Ziemba, Tom Hewitt, Lenny Wolpe, Kimberly Immanuel, Jeff Hiller, Alison Fraser. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The cast acts in a style mixing high comedy and farce, with some performances, like Alison Fraser’s (a cross between Angela Lansbury and Ariana Huffington), being especially noteworthy for their eccentric charm. Acting for the sake of acting sometimes trumps acting for the sake of ideas, especially in the campy cavorting of Jeff Hiller in three roles, the maid, Guiness; Ariadne’s foppish husband, Randall Utterword; and the burglar. At one point he rapidly shifts from role to role before our eyes by changing his accent and the way he handles his cap and costume. Nicely done as this kind of self-conscious clowning may be, it can easily seem more geared to drawing laughs than stimulating thoughtful responses.
Derek Smith, Alison Fraser, Kimberly Immanuel, Raphael Nash Thompson, Jeff Hiller, Karen Ziemba, Tom Hewitt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Staller’s brisk ensemble consistently juggles Shaw’s words with comic verve, managing to squeeze enough of the play’s intellectual juice to make the production viable. The play's longueurs are likely unavoidable in any rendering, faithful or otherwise, and the "let's put on a show" framing device, extraneous as it may be, has its particular pleasures. Anyway, all talk and no laughs would make Heartbreak House a much duller play.


Lion Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 29