Shaw's Heartbreak House: Where We May Amuse Ourselves Watching Brits Dancing on the Deck of the Titanic
Shaw's circa 1916 smart upper and middle class Brits are too shallow, self-absorbed and complacent to even be aware that their country and way of life are collapsing about them. Are we any different as our economy suffers its worse collapse in almost eighty years and our political, business and industrial, and labor leaders flounder around cluelessly promoting their personal agendas?
Young, financially strapped Ellie Dunn has been invited by the free spirited Hesione Hushabye to visit her home. Hesione is set on dissuading Ellie from marrying the elder Boss Mangan, a crude, successful businessman. Hesione knows that Ellie actually loves another and only wants to marry Mangan in order to gain financial security for herself and her father, honest working man Mazzini Dunn. Hesione resides here happily with her philandering husband, Hector Hushabye (his proclivities are okay by her because she also philanders), and her elderly father, Captain Shotover, a wise and eccentric retired sea captain, inventor and anarchist. Unbeknownst to everyone, Hector (while employing a pseudonym) was the man with whom Ellie had fallen in love. Also on hand for the dalliances and contretemps are Shotover's prodigal younger daughter, Lady Utterword (Ariadne), who while yet a teenager had run away from home and then calculatingly married into the well-off diplomatic class; Ellie's father, Mazzini; Boss Mangan; and house servant, Nurse Guinness. The plot is just an amusing McGuffin for Shaw's broadsides.
Director Aaron Posner has shaped his large cast into an exceptionally well-integrated ensemble. For quite some time, Dana Acheson's Ellie seems too vulnerable and sincere for the manipulators seeking her seemingly innocent soul. Then, Acheson smoothly and believably enacts Ellie's transformation into a determined, calculating young woman who may damn well be most happy marrying for financial gain. Grace Gonglewski is ingratiating as the shallow but winsome Hesione, whose bohemian happiness is shallow and fragile. Antoinette LaVecchia doesn't emphasize the femme fatale aspect of Ariadne, but adroitly reveals Ariadne's sense of loss at having prematurely left the bosom of her family. Catherine Lynn Davis is amusing as Nurse Guinness.
Ken Albers, eschewing the common practice of appearing in the guise of Bernard Shaw in his role, is a calculatedly curmudgeonly, warm and delightful companion as Captain Shotover. Christopher Donahue's Boss Mangan hits the right notes as an otherwise less than appealing fellow whose assets (money, smarts and power) make him appealing enough. Bradford Cover as the contented wastrel Hector and Stephen D'Ambrose as the honest working man on whose efforts all wealth is made round out the cast with well-conceived, solid performances.
There is so much of excellence in the direction of Aaron Posner that it may be churlish to note that Posner also displays his tendency to impose showy, insufficiently thought out directorial tricks on classic plays. His program note for Our Town referred to "blow(ing) a little dust off" the classic which meant that some of the smaller roles would be cast with approximately three-quarter life sized puppets. For the first two (of three) acts of Heartbreak House, what appears to be a large squarish blackboard is hung front and center stage over the actors. Before the play and at intermission, a profusion of various usually wise and/or amusing quotes from Shaw and others are projected. It would be better if Posner had not added dozens of wise and witty phrases to clutter our minds when directing a play so rife with them, as well as complex ideas, that it fatiguingly places our brains on overtime. Furthermore, Posner also uses the blackboard to continually place short phrases from the play's dialogue. I would estimate that the phrases appear for between two and four minutes. As each is spoken, it is replaced by a new phrase. For the most part, these phrases do not stand from the balance of the play's dialogue and distract our thoughts from the on-going dialogue's dense flow of rich and important ideas.
Two characters have also been excised from the erstwhile more than three-hour play. I particularly missed the humor dispensed by the burglar, whose humorously twisted morality makes him something of an off-shoot of Pygmalion's Alfred P. Doolittle. I do not think there is much lost with the excision of Randall Utterword, Lady Utterword's brother-in-law. Most importantly, Posner has kept the play moving at a brisk pace, making it feel fresh and alive. Posner is aided in this by his excellent design team. Scenic Designer Tony Cisek has placed a number of period furnishings on a downstage platform which extends into the auditorium and serves as the principal playing level. One step up and behind it is a second platform on which sits, at stage left, an artfully odd-angled house-shaped mountain of furniture and home furnishings with a gunwale and protruding cannon set high in the center. It is a smart and eccentric setting for the smart and eccentric Captain Shotover and his creator. Even that darn blackboard and its lettering look good. For act three, the blackboard is removed, that mountain of furniture rotates to stage right, and dozens of small lights (stars) are lowered into position all about the stage as the setting smoothly shifts to outside the house. This shift finally explains the black rear curtain which is set so far back on the airy, open set that it never casts any gloom on the proceedings. Olivera Gajic's "period" costumes are attractive and enhance character. What I would not have known except for a lobby exhibit, and offer here for those with a particular interest in costume design, is that Gajic has designed the costumes for the principal ladies in three different time periods in order to emphasize each one's relative freedom and modernity. Ariadne's dress (with corset) is Edwardian, Henson's dress is in the style of 1913 to 1919, and Ellie is dressed thoroughly modern 1920s.
Shaw describes Heartbreak House as "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes." As such, it is modeled after the plays of Anton Chekhov. Its title does not simply represent the house in which it is set. Shaw writes in the prologue that it refers to "cultured, leisured Europe before the war ... Tolstoy did not waste any sympathy on it: it was to him the house in which Europe was stifling its soul; and he knew that our utter enervation and futilization in that overheated drawing room atmosphere was delivering the world over to the control of ignorant and soulless cunning and energy, with the frightful consequences which have now overtaken it."
Ever the pacifist, Bernard Shaw ridiculed what he regarded as the stoked and foolish lust for vengeance among the British during World War I in his extended prologue to Heartbreak House. Still, in conclusion to it, Shaw writes, "Truth telling is not compatible to the defense of the realm ... comedy, though sorely tempted had to be loyally silent ... That is why I had to withhold Heartbreak House from the footlights during the war; for the Germans might on any night have turned the last act from play into earnest, and even then might not have waited for their cues."
While sitting in the comfort of the Two River Rechnitz Theatre in Red Bank, and laughing at the Brits gathered at Heartbreak House as they dance on the Titanic, it is painfully edifying to realize that they are us.
Heartbreak House continues performances (Eves: Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m. /Matinees: Wednesday 1 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday 3 p.m.) through November 23, 2008 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw; directed by Aaron Posner