Heartbreak House: A Shaw Rarity

 

 

Review by Beatrice Williams-Rude

 

As Joe Papp was to Shakespeare, Jose Quintero to Eugene O’Neill, David Staller is to George Bernard Shaw.

David Staller is the best thing to happen to GBS since Lerner and Loewe turned Pygmalion into My Fair Lady.

Since 2006, Staller’s Project Shaw has kept GBS front and center with staged readings, full  productions of works both famous, such as Androcles and the LionCandidaMajor BarbaraCaesar and Cleopatra, and obscure, John Bull’s Other Island, for example. NYC should declare David Staller a living  landmark

Rarely produced and having a complex history—being ready at a politically incorrect time, being rewritten and annotated– mounting a production of Heartbreak House must have been an irresistible challenge for Staller.  His innovative solution was to put the audience in an air-raid shelter in WWII and have the cast of the play interrupted by the alarm provide entertainment. There were singalongs (the program provided the lyrics) with WWI favorites including  “Pack Up Your Troubles (in your old kit bag).” Then the interrupted play, now a play within a play set in 1914, is performed.

We are in Captain Shotover’s villa in Sussex, England, whose eccentric residents and guests include the Captain’s two daughters, the husband of one, a young female visitor, a “Napoleon of business.” The plot is but a contrivance to provide launching pads for volleys of hilariously acerbic one liners, for which Shaw has no peers.

 It must be noted at once that David Staller is a genius at casting. The performers not only flesh  out characters that could be caricatures, but have voices, know how to use them, and have impeccable diction. We hear and understand every blistering witticism.

The topics for dissection and derision include  male-female relations (the woman generally wins, but it’s a devil’s bargain). In answer to the question as to why women fancy other women’s husbands: in buying a horse, wouldn’t you prefer one that’s already broken in?Also, money, power, politics, crime and punishment and keeping up appearances.

Shaw had been a music critic and Heartbreak House is structured like an opera. The characters have monologues explaining themselves, arias in effect, which mostly draw spontaneous applause.

 The superlative cast: Captain Shotover, Raphael Nash Thompson; Ellie Dunn, Kimberly Immanuel; Guinness/Randall Utterword/Burglar, Jeff Miller; Lady Ariadne Utterword, Alison Fraser; Hesione Hushabye, Karen Ziemba; Mazzini Dunn, Lenny Wolpe; Hector Hushabye, Tom Hewitt; and Boss Mangan, Derek Smith.

 

The appropriate costumes—Lady Ariadne’s in particular—are by Barbara A. Bell. Evocative set design by Brian Prather. Lighting by Christina Watanabe; sound by Toby Algya.

 The glittering witticisms  are  brilliant gems, but like a mound of pearls that need a string to turn them into a necklace. The convoluted plot provides no forward thrust. The play is so overlong one wishes the bombs had fallen a half hour earlier.

 Photos: Carol Rosegg

 

Heartbreak House has been playing at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row since Aug. 28; it opened Sept. 9, and will continue through Sept. 29. Running time is two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. www.gingoldgroup.org

 

The Lion Theatre – Theatre Row, 410 West Forty-Second Street, between Ninth and Tenth Aves in Manhattan.

 

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