Roundabout Theatre Company Presents Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Robin Lefevre. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Cast: Philip Bosco, Swoosie Kurtz, Byron Jennings, Lily Rabe, Laila Robins, Bill Camp, John Christopher Jones, Gareth Saxe, Jenny Sterlin.
"We have been too long here." Truer words have seldom been spoken in recent months than these, uttered without a trace of irony by Byron Jennings near the end of Roundabout's essentially endless new production of Heartbreak House at the American Airlines. It's a sentiment anyone daring to attend this ramshackle revival of George Bernard Shaw's sometimes-comedy will understand all too well.
As it occurs in the play, that sentence is both the crack and the shatter in the resolve of the high-born Sussex family on which the play centers. It's the verbal culmination of events for this brood, who are riding out their last days in a house shaped like a ship (the unusually perfunctory set design is by John Lee Beatty) and is, in fact, a contemporary corruption of Noah's ark. These last remaining dinosaurs of the English leisured class may hope to repopulate the Earth, but won't be given the chance: They are, quite simply, too prehistoric.
They've outlived their usefulness, Shaw argues, strongly echoing another play about a family whose way of life keeled over from excessive antiquation while they weren't looking: The Cherry Orchard. Shaw even subtitled Heartbreak House "A fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes," not only acknowledging Anton Chekhov's masterpiece in the composition of his scenario, his characters, and the fates for which they're all inexorably headed, but in a lengthy introduction in the play's published text.
Though that subtitle appears nowhere in the Roundabout production's Playbill, director Robin Lefevre has nonetheless gone to excessive extremes to unite Shaw and Chekhov: She's taken the most problematic, audience-unfriendly characteristics of each author's work and blended them into a show that makes every mistake usually made by enterprising but underequipped college or community theatre troupes attempting the classics. This is, without a doubt, the most boring and the most baffling production I have ever seen of any Shaw play.
It's also strangely stodgy, given the subject matter. One would imagine this play would be timely enough to alert notice from eagle-eyed campaign finance reformers this election year: It first appeared just after World War I, intended by Shaw to rouse his countrymen from their disinterested stupor and help them more clearly see the folly of war and the unsustainability of their way of life. As we're living through events that should render that message every bit as vital, the creaking of each of the nearly 90 years separating this production from the play's original publication sadly resonates more loudly than it should.
The energizing force most missing is the sense of Bohemian abandon that should characterize everyone on this rudderless sailing ship to nowhere. It's particularly important for Hector Hushabye (Jennings) and his wife Hesione (Swoosie Kurtz), who lead their lives strictly according to what they can get away with: He's a congenital con artist, she's an artful praying mantis always poised to feast on her current man of the day.
But the two actors find no joy in anything their characters say or do, which makes nonsense of the play's most crucial characterizations. Jennings, a crisp and confident actor when cast in roles that require a sturdy regality, doesn't even whisper carefree onstage; he offers up no discernible hint of Hector's wayward tendencies or necessarily personable nature. The brittle, urbane Kurtz doesn't seem able to conceive enough of Bohemia to attend a performance of Rent, at least not judging by her perpetually perturbed Hesione, who embodies less levity than did the mother of a murdered child Kurtz played in her last Broadway role in Frozen. All this makes for a shaky foundation on which little else can be reliably built.
Laila Robins does better by Hesione's hypocritical sister, Ariadne, who's determined to have her way when she wants and with whom she wants, and Lily Rabe, the company's most contemporary performer (which is saying something), finds a few moments of emotional abandon in Ellie, the young girl who might have to marry for money rather than love. Both women, however, seem to hail more from New York's Upper West Side than anywhere on the east side of the Pond, a problem also afflicting many of the supporting men (John Christopher Jones as Ellie's laissez-faire father, Bill Camp as the drooling capitalist she may have to wed, and Gareth Saxe as Ariadne's scheming brother-in-law, none of whom makes a succinct impression).
Only one performer is believable as both English and the character he's playing: Philip Bosco, essaying the role of George Bernard Shaw. Well, not technically: He's billed as Captain Shotover, the house's deceptively mad magnate, but as costumed by Jane Greenwood and wigged up by Tom Watson, he's the spitting image for Shaw, whose own acerbic philosophies are said to have informed Shotover. Despite missing roughly three-quarters of the role's potential laughs, Bosco is apparently the only one connected with the show who realizes the virtues of lightly treating heavy subjects.
Shaw might well have been appalled: He considered Heartbreak House an important drama, and was reportedly outraged at early audiences' bubbling laughter. But no one else onstage is more dramatic than they are comic: They tend to wander about and speak their lines as if waiting for laughs that never come, or expecting deep meaning to drop from the sky like the Zeppelin attack that changes everything (and nothing) in the third act.
That won't, and can't, happen in any production that, like this one, lacks
either a clear point of view or even a point. As Hector says, immediately
following his line about festering in the house, "We do not live in this
house: we haunt it." This Heartbreak House represents, for the characters,
the actors, and the audience alike, a very similar purgatory.