There are times, like these, when one is grateful that the theater so regularly revives its classics. After all, we haven't noticed too many playwrights in these parts writing new works on a par with George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. This is the fifth time this turbulent dark comedy has played on Broadway and we can hardly imagine an age with a greater need than ours for its discussion of serious social themes. It is refreshing, indeed, to hear smart and incisive dialogue about love, marriage and power. It's also refreshing to see the Roundabout Theatre Company eschew its reputation for shoe-horning movie stars into its shows to help sell tickets. Instead, this well-heeled subscription company has assembled an impressive cast of genuine stage actors who, with the help of director Robin Lefevre, have brought this play of ideas into sharp relief.
Before we continue, here is a double-edged warning: If you're a Shavian purist, you should know that this Heartbreak House has been cut and the character of the burglar has been entirely excised from the story. The change doesn't destroy the plot because the play doesn't have much of a dramatic arc to begin with. The change does alter the balance of the proceedings but not the meaning. The reason for the edit, of course, was to make this very long play into something closer to contemporary length. It's now two hours and twenty-five minutes plus a fifteen minute intermission. Here's the other side of that warning: if you're not a fan of Shaw's work, the edit is not going to make you like it any better; it's still going to be a long haul. The first act, which is only fifty-five minutes, is the weak end of the show; there is lots of exposition and character establishment that can get just a wee bit tedious. The ninety minute second act, however, bristles with conflicts that bloom and boom.
Many have written about this play's conscious debt to Chekov, and in that vein many have written about the play as a contemplation of the end of an English era. All true. One of the great things about Shaw is that his best works – and there are plenty of them, including this play – are freewheeling in their brilliance and don't depend upon their immediate reference points. In fact, at the end when these "heartbroken" characters willingly risk annihilation – making the point that they are a strata of English society that has run out its string – we may find it the weakest and least convincing part of the play, but we still admire the work for its intellectual derring-do, matched only by its swashbuckling way with the English language.
Shaw doesn't require great elocutionists the way Shakespeare does, but he does require great actors who can breathe life into characters who exist to present and argue ideas. This production has a bountiful crop of them. First and foremost, it's great to welcome back Philip Bosco as the patriarch of Heartbreak House, Captain Shotover; he gives a wry performance that is pure Shaw (and he is purposefully made up to look like Shaw, as well). Lily Rabe as Ellie combines innocence with iron in a very human package. And how about Bill Camp as Boss Mangan? Here is one of New York's most consistently superior actors and he is magnificent in the role for which Philip Bosco, himself, received a Tony nomination in the 1983 revival. Great fun to watch are Laila Robins as one imperious daughter of the household and Swoosie Kurtz as the sexually free other daughter. Also particularly winning are John Christopher Jones as a now thoughtful idealist, Byron Jennings as a dashing, if confused, ladies man, and Gareth Saxe as a brooding aristocrat.
Heartbreak House is not a natural Broadway crowd-pleaser in this day and age so we applaud the Roundabout for presenting it to us, buoyed as it is by its large subscription audience. It plays at the American Airlines Theatre through December 10th. Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212)719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the American Airlines box office (227 West 42nd St.).
3 Stars: Hell House
St. Ann's Warehouse has taken on a huge project with more than 100 people involved in its frightening production of Hell House. Today is Friday the 13th and this seems like the appropriate time to write about this faithful recreation of an evangelical hell house, the likes of which are flourishing right now all over the United States – but certainly not in New York City. A hell house, for the uninitiated (which included us until we saw this show), is essentially a distorted circus funhouse. One walks through it and, rather than see sideshow attractions, you are witness to gay men getting married, a young girl having premarital sex, an abortion, etc. and all of these characters find themselves literally damned to hell. You are led on this tour by a demon who eventually introduces you to Satan, himself, but Jesus actually shows up at the end to offer you salvation. This is really hoary stuff. But the shocking statistic we were given is that one-third of the people who enter a hell house for religious reasons (rather than theatrical reasons) embrace The Lord at the end.
New York is loaded with great actors so one can assume that the performers in real hell houses elsewhere are less well equipped to do the job than those on display at St. Ann's Warehouse; that said, it ain't about the acting, except insofar as these no doubt more gifted performers are being asked to dumb down their work in order to make it more like the real thing. But that's a theatrical conundrum because this expansive and impressive work doesn't purport to have a point of view or an attitude. We, the audience, bring that to the table. In our little touring group, everyone looked like they were going straight to hell – including us. But then where is the art? Then again, how do you parody something that your audience will already perceive as parody?
Hell House at St. Ann's Warehouse through October 29. Tickets at TicketWeb.com.
A Quick Suggestion
Sisters isn't a great play but this one-woman show at 59E59 Theaters starring Anna Manahan does provide this accomplished Irish actress a showy vehicle. She plays two sisters, one in each act. Without giving anything away, the home that these two sisters occupy is its own little hell house, too. You'll have to hurry to catch this one, though because it ends this Sunday.