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A CurtainUp Review

The Hasty Heart
By Simon Saltzman

Slowly, Lachlen. Remember, 'Sorrow's born in the Hasty Heart.' ---Margaret

I'm nae hasty! I know ma' duty.---Lachie
 Keith Nobbs  &  Emily Donahoe
Keith Nobbs & Emily Donahoe (Photo: Josh Bradford)
The Keen Company is presenting a very respectable staging of John Patrick's sentimental The Hasty Heart. The engaging if seriously dated 60 year-old play is the first of his only two stage successses (the other was the 1953 Pulitzer-Prize winnerThe Teahouse of the August Moon). It has has been largely ignored in recent years. . . for very good reasons.

This revival will undoubtedly serve as a reminder of a time when simply nice plays were not only admired but regularly attended on Broadway. The original and highly praised play enjoyed a 204-performance run on Broadway in 1945 and starred Richard Basehart, Anne Burr and John Lund. What you're most likely to remember is the 1949 movie with Richard Todd, Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal and if you do, then you must also remember what a fine film it was.

The play actually was revived twenty years ago Off-Broadway by The Mirror Repertory Company, an adventurous group known (for too short a time) for its admirable resurrections of neglected plays. Similarly adventurous, the Keen Company did a charming revival of The Voice of the Turtle in 2001 and this Hasty Heart certainly fits their mission to present sincere plays -- and, at moments, a bit more. As directed by Jonathan Silverstein with a notable respect for the play's strengths and its frailties, and as performed by a company eager to invest more than modicum of honesty into their clichéd characters, it provides a pleasantly retro entertainment.

Set in a convalescent ward of a British General Hospital in the rear of the Assam-Burma front at the end of World War II, the play is drawn from Patrick's experiences as a member of an ambulance unit in that area. The plot revolves around Lachlen, a bitter and arrogant Scottish sergeant, who is initially unaware that he is dying. During the course of the play, he discovers the importance of brotherly love, the rewards that come with sharing feelings with others, and the value of one's life.

Although he is the key antagonist in this ward of six patients, Lachlen, the doomed Scot, is not the only character on whom we focus our attention. As acted with imposed rigidity by Keith Nobbs, Lachlen, nevertheless, quickly becomes the one with whom we are most involved. The original five patients appear at first to be the obligatory representative collection of allies -- Digger, an Australian; Yank, an American; Tommy, an Englishman; Kiwi, a New Zealander, and Blossom, an indigenous Basuto. However, it is their defensive bickering and friendly baiting that is designed to establish both their national pride and their camaraderie. Corny doesn't even begin to describe it.

The ward is attended by Sister Margaret (the British term for nurse), a compassionate young woman who firmly balances the atmosphere of healing and depression with ethics and optimism. As portrayed by Emily Donahoe with a generosity of spunk and spirit, her profession is well represented.

Stephen Bradbury stands firm in his few scenes as Colonel "Cobwebs," the medical officer who has given the men the task of keeping the loner Lachlen "contented" after he has had one kidney removed with the "defective" remaining kidney unable to prevent the onset of uremia (kidney transplants were not yet an option). The colonel decides not to tell Lachlen that he will probably die within six weeks, but his request that the nurse and the men remain upbeat and friendly is severely strained when "Lachie" proves hostile and rude.

While sophisticated audiences may find the plot conventional, there are a few tugs at the heart and scattered occasions for a laugh as these men find momentary bonds and humor during their convalescence. Your ears will prick up listening to the disarmingly innocent and profanity free dialogue. That's a jolt in itself, notwithstanding the funny scene in which Margaret orders the men to "Get your needle point out." It's quite a tribute to the days when recuperating soldiers would not be adverse or subject to ridicule for this kind of therapy. A little hard to swallow is the men's willingness to give each other back rubs and resort to smacking each other with fly swatters.

A certain amount of tension builds as Lachie and the other men clash, with their various dialects in bold relief. If Margaret's increasingly emotional tie to Lachie doesn't quite ring true, it isn't the fault of either actor. Donahoe's warmth is infectious; and it is to Nobbs's credit that he puts Lachie's cynical, cold, and contemptuous facade out front and keeps it there. As the men slowly break through this very lonely man's wall of loneliness, we, like them, become more empathetic toward him.

Anthony Manna fits comfortably into the role of Tommy, the tubby Englishman with an inclination to giggle. Chris Hutchison is ideal as "Yank," the good natured Southerner whose constant coping with a speech impediment doesn't prevent him from speaking his mind. Paul Swinnerton stands tall as Kiwi, and Brian Sgambati brings a welcomed muscularity to the action, as Digger. Chris Chalk doesn't get much of an opportunity to reveal much about the enigmatic Blossom, except when he gives Lachie a gift of beads.

Josh Bradford's day-into-night lighting enhances Nathan Heverin's simple setting, a dressing screen and a row of mosquito-netted cots, As is typical these days, the original three acts have been compressed into two acts.

The Keen Company's Artistic Director Carl Forsman has this valid comment to make about the play: "While our democracy debates our current military involvement, this play allows us to consider the sacrifice and valor of the average soldier, for whom service is a matter not of nations, but of fellowship and survival." Yet, despite all the life-support it is getting from his company, The Hasty Heart really doesn't beat with the times any more.

The Hasty Heart
Written by John Patrick
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein.
Cast: Stephen Bradbury, Chris Chalk, Emily Donahoe, Lucas Hall, Chris Hutchison, Anthony Manna, Keith Nobbs, Brian Sgambati and Paul> Set Design: Nathan Heverin br>Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Stefan Jacobs
Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins with an intermission.
Keen Company at Theater Three, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor (8th/9th Avenues) 212-868-4444
From 11/20/04 to 12/18/04; opening 11/26/04
Tuesday ­ Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM.
Tickets are $19
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on November 23rd press performance
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