One of the maddest plays that George Bernard Shaw ever wrote, Heartbreak House is a diffuse, dark, and profusely chatty comedy regarding decadent Edwardian society, marriage, gender politics, capitalism, the power of illusion, and the end of the world, among many other themes. Begun in 1916 (some sources cite 1913), Shaw fiddled with his text—as the world burned during the Great War—until the Theatre Guild premiered the play in New York in 1920.
Since then, some critics see Heartbreak House as profound, while others consider the play to be a glorious muddle. Shaw himself once confessed, “I don’t know what it is …”
This challenging work is now staged at Theatre Row in a batty and ultimately disappointing production by Gingold Theatrical Group, the company founded in 2006 by David Staller, its artistic director, to present Shaw’s works.
Essentially, the story regards various romantic entanglements that ensue during a weekend in a disorderly country house in England—think of it as an upside-Downton Abbey escapade. Before diving into its thickets, let’s mention two unusual features of Gingold’s production.
Staller, who directs, notes that he uses a text he has culled from Shaw’s “original hand-written version along with the subsequent typed manuscripts, numerous letters with directives, and various production scripts he’d worked on or approved.” Without a detailed comparison of this script to the published one, it’s impossible to say how much they vary. As one who has seen the play several times before, Staller’s edition does not appear to me to be substantially different.
Far more critical to this revival is a World War II frame that Staller wraps around the play. The auditorium and stage are dressed to suggest the basement of a London theater in 1940. Programs given to the audience carry local ads from that era and official instructions on what do in the event of an air raid. As the performance starts, the audience is treated as if they have just left a show and are taking shelter below the theater as Nazi bombers approach the city. A waitress from a nearby restaurant, a show girl from a nightclub, a Lunt-Fontanne sort of an acting couple, and an impresario are among people who arrive in a flurry of introductions and spontaneous babble:
Well, then, what should we do while waiting for the all-clear signal? Let’s put on a play! Yes! Let’s do Heartbreak House! But first, let’s all sing a song! How about “Pack Up Your Troubles”? The lyrics are printed in your program. All together now!
Eventually the play begins. (Somehow these people have rummaged up clothes of 1914 vintage that fit them and suit their characters. Oh, and they magically know the script by heart. Frankly, this gambit requires an immense suspension of disbelief, but let’s go with it.)
While Heartbreak House can be construed as an anti-war play, it is more of a study of some various eccentrics who mostly symbolize a devitalized England. Beyond eccentric, however, is an utterly wild performance by Alison Fraser as Lady Utterwood, who represents old-school aristocracy. Rattling off her speeches in veddy grand gasps, snaking about the stage in a flurry of serpentine gestures and stylized attitudes, Fraser is outrageously comical, although she remains an entirely distracting figure.
Tom Hewitt, whose frustrated character of Hector Hushabye wastes his existence in heroic play-acting, presents a more controlled rendition of an extravagant individual. But then there is Jeff Hiller, who has been directed to deliver overly farcical, if amusing, portrayals of four characters, including an Irish housekeeper and a weepy, upper-class twit. In contrast, Karen Ziemba and Raphael Nash Thompson are so understated in their performances that too often they fade into the background even when they are standing at center stage.
Striking a better balance are Derek Smith, as a scowling captain of industry, and Lenny Wolpe as a perennial nice guy. The most satisfying performance is achieved by Kimberly Immanuel in the tricky role of Ellie Dunn, a daydreaming ingénue whose gradual disillusionment smartens her up considerably. Immanuel believably traces Ellie’s evolution towards sensibility without sacrificing her essential sweetness of nature.
Not anchored to a consistent acting style, the play’s metaphoric voyage as a ship of English fools sailing towards the rocks of world war unfortunately gets lost in the fog of Staller’s busy, somewhat slapdash, production. It would have been better for everyone, especially the audience, had Staller dropped that half-baked, time-wasting,1940 frame and focused instead upon staging the play and its actors with greater judgment.
Heartbreak House opened September 9, 2018, at Theatre Row and runs through September 29. Tickets and information: gingoldgroup.org