The time is right for a production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. With the United States, and perhaps the world, teetering on the edge of war, George Bernard Shaw's World War I Bohemian comedy should be one of the timeliest shows around.
But while the new Pearl Theatre production makes a good case for Heartbreak House, it is not entirely successful on its own terms. Gus Kaikkonen's frequently meandering direction never allows the actors (or their characters) to find their stride prior to the play's third (and admittedly most exciting) act. At that point, when sides have been chosen and the upcoming war is inevitable, Kaikonnen and his actors can do no wrong. But what leads up to it is something of a chore.
The first two acts are vital in their depiction of the myriad social and romantic complications facing the family living in, and visitors to, the house of the ancient Captain Shotover (George Morfogen). In brief: The captain's daughter, Hesione (Joanne Camp) is married to Hector (Russ Anderson), who is carrying on with the young Ellie (Rachel Botchan), whose father (Edward Seamon) wants her to marry into money (Dan Daily, as the mysterious Mangan), who may or may not be as rich as everyone thinks he is - and so on.
But when none of the actors seem to have much chemistry with each other, or any real energized interest in making all of this seem believable, Heartbreak House becomes difficult (and supremely uninteresting) to follow. Such is the case here. The actors are generally fine in their roles, just seldom able to really connect with each other through most of the show. Camp is an elegant Hesione, Botchan a charmingly innocent youth, Daily an appropriately oily businessman, and so on. But for too much of the show, they seem less interesting together than they do apart.
This changes for one short scene in the second act. The most significant dramatic moment so far occurs when a philosophizing burglar (Robert Hock) arrives, creating an invigorating and highly enjoyable sense of confusion for a few minutes. During this time, the actors truly come together as a company and seem to working together to make things work. Though Hock's scene is over quickly, the actors are able to build on this, and make the rest of the second act (and all of the third) seem as though humans truly are at the helm.
The one actor who gets his performance right throughout is Morfogen, as a thoroughly energizing Shotover. His deadpan delivery, perfectly right for the character, is uproarious. His convoluted sense of sanity makes nearly everything he does, whether conveniently forgetting about one of his daughters or discussing his attempts and failures at reaching the "seventh degree of concentration," a joy. As typical for Pearl productions, the costumes (Liz Covey), lighting (Stephen Petrilli), and Beowulf Boritt's familiar-looking set don't let down the production.
Shotover and Morfogen provide a much needed anchor for the production, but aren't enough on their own; there's not a great enough sense of disinterest (or self interest) to propel the play to its conclusion; at play's end, when Rome burns, most of the characters as portrayed here have just begun to pick up their fiddles. While Shaw's indictment of the leisure class - particularly as displayed in the third act - stands on its own, this Heartbreak House could benefit greatly from a stronger foundation.
Pearl Theatre Company