nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 12, 2006
MANGAN: I don't understand a word of that.
ELLIE: Neither do I. But, I know it means something.
That brief Act II exchange sums up the essence of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House perfectly. Eager to address the mysteries of life, love, and the universe, this behemoth of a play is about everything and nothing. Naturally, that turns out to be one of its virtues. In the hands of both Shaw and the splendid company behind Roundabout Theatre Company's excellent new revival, watching Heartbreak House is like attending a party where the guests try to ascertain the meaning of life: you're not sure you understand everything they say, but you go home flushed with the exhilaration that they attempted something so ambitious at all.
The setting is Captain Shotover's house in the English countryside. The Captain is an elderly socialist who vacillates between lucidity and senility: in one instant he can utter something poetically evocative like, "Give me deeper darkness. Money is not made in the light," and in the next mistake someone for a pirate. His grown daughter, the sultry libertine Hesione Hushabye, has invited young Ellie Dunn for the weekend. Ellie is engaged to Boss Mangan, a wealthy capitalist who saved her family from financial ruin years earlier. She doesn't love him so much as she feels indebted to him.
But, Ellie has a secret suitor whose dashing exploits she conveys to Hesione. In no time, the suitor is revealed as Hesione's charming but ridiculous husband, Hector. But, Hesione doesn't mind: she just wants to save Ellie from her marriage of convenience. So, Hesione zeroes in on Boss Mangan while Ellie goes after Hector.
Naturally, things don't go as planned. Hector switches gears as soon as Hesione's sister, Lady Utterword, arrives after a 20-plus year absence. He is immediately bewitched by her, and he's not the only one: Lady Utterword's sniveling brother-in-law, Randall, has followed her to the Shotover house, intent on declaring his love for her.
Does this all sound a bit complicated? And juvenile? That's the point. Shaw makes minced meat out of these upper-crusters, satirizing their petty deceptions and the casual sport they make of love. Their lives of leisure, and their casual indifference to the outside world, make them prime targets for Shaw's high-powered wit.
But, Shaw also uses his motley crew to make larger points about marriage and society. On the subject of matrimony, the author proves himself to be quite a forward thinker: since, in his view, marriage is essentially a business decision, Heartbreak House endorses the extramarital intrigues swirling inside its walls. The open-minded world view of the play's mostly bohemian denizens is much more conducive to a happy marriage, as far as Shaw is concerned. And, as entertaining as their cozy lifestyle is, Heartbreak House shows that its days are numbered. Even though it's never stated outright, the play takes place during World War I, on the eve of large societal changes that these characters won't be able to ignore. Shaw symbolizes this with a dramatic and arbitrary enemy air raid at the play's climax.
For the most part, though, Heartbreak House is breathtaking fun. Shaw makes a heady brew out of erudite humor and gravitas. The best example of this comes in a terrific Act II scene where Ellie's youthful romanticism tenderly collides with the Captain's world-weary experience ("Do you think I ought to marry Mr. Mangan?" "One rock is as good as another to be wrecked on.")
Director Robin Lefevre endows Heartbreak House with the loony energy of an old-fashioned, door-slamming farce, which his expert cast is mostly up to the task of embodying. Swoosie Kurtz makes for a believable temptress as Hesione, while Laila Robins vamps it up nicely as the more straight-laced (but no less libidinous) Lady Utterword. The always reliable John Christopher Jones makes the most of Ellie's soft-spoken father, Mazzini Dunn. Bill Camp makes a strong impression as the powerful but cowardly Boss Mangan. Turning Hector into an endearing, comical Douglas Fairbanks type, the terrific Byron Jennings adds another excellent performance to his resume. And, the reigning Shaw champion of Broadway, Philip Bosco, anchors the production with an outstanding turn as Captain Shotover. Only Lily Rabe stumbles: as Ellie, she muscles her way through Heartbreak House as if she's got something to prove (which neither she nor her character does). While her castmates elegantly embody their roles, Rabe gets caught "acting."
Heartbreak House is a play that tries to cover a lot of ground, and is not always successful. But, it's still more ambitious and accomplished than most new plays nowadays. And, its colorful cast of characters makes the play's broad scope much easier to absorb. Thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company's exemplary production, this is one party you'll want to attend.