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A CurtainUp Review
Heartbreak House

I drink to keep sober.— Captain Shotover

Philip Bosco as Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House
Philip Bosco as Captain Shotover (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Roundabout Theater revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House has been confidently directed by Robin Lefevre and boasts an exceptionally fine cast. Their concerted efforts keep the longish (almost three hours) play on its relentlessly talky but incontestably witty path through the razor-edged Shavian world of English eccentrics.

Because of his controversial political views and discouraged by an unfriendly press, George Bernard Shaw postponed the production of this, his most lauded anti-war play, until 1920, six years after he had begun writing it. Despite its long-windedness, and the feeling that you are spending six years in your seat, Shaw’s views are worth hearing and pondering in the light of our own similarly controversial and perhaps even more polarized political times.

At play's end, a World War I bomb drops smack on the dynamite stockpile stored under the noses of a family of vain, lying, idle, selfish and satirically politicized inhabitants. But before prophesying the end of the world, Shaw gives us a chance to laugh at the absurdities and stupidity of them all.

In what may be the rarest and choicest English "roast" of the middle classes in dramatic literature, this notable cast takes commendable turns at the helm steering this veritable houseboat and its household onto the inevitable rocks of despair. Philip Bosco, who is no stranger to either the Shavian canon or the Roundabout Theater Company, having appeared in 13 of their productions, assumes the role of Captain Shotover with the greatest of ease. If not altogether anciently mariner-ed, he is autumnally raffish in full white beard and tattered pea coat. He plays the 88 year-old character with the bad tempered nature of an incorrigible teenager. Spending his time inventing both metaphysical and real doomsday weapons, while alternately insulting his house guests with a shower of nasty bon mots, the old sea dog’s eccentricities are made all the more delicious by Bosco’s inimitable croaking delivery.

Lily Rabe, who made her Broadway debut last year in Steel Magnolias is a revelation, as Ellie Dunn. Her clear and vibrant speech and glowing portrayal of the idealistic but never naive ingënue keeps pace admirably with the haughtily insufferable sophisticates surrounding her. As Ariadne, Laila Robins is a model of upper-class affectation and snobbishness, with her nose always a trifle higher than her station.

Vaguely contorting life to suit her, Ariadne’s romantically consumed, estranged sister Hesione is amusingly acted by Swoosie Kurtz, who shows a highly individualized flair for floating through this sea of babble while also giving a sly untypical twist to Shaw’s prose. Gowned magnificently by designer Jane Greenwood, Kurtz looked particularly stunning in a draped creation the color of cranberry that dazzled in concert with her cascading red curls ("natural except for the color"), Kurtz’s romantic excess is accompanied by a droll characterization that almost poignantly fuses an expert enchantress with a cunningly desperate woman struggling to hold on to a husband not worth the struggle.

Classy performances also are given by John Christopher Jones, as Mazzini Dunn, Ellie’s truly naive father; a dashing Byron Jennings, as Hector Hushabye, the fabricating womanizer; Bill Camp, as the overwrought cigar puffing capitalist; Gareth Saxe, as an effete neer-do-well; and Jenny Sterlin, as the ill-mannered maid.

John Lee Beatty designed the handsome wood-paneled country home and Peter Kaczorowsky created the flattering lighting.

Heartbreak House is filled with often explosively funny dialogue and this cast uses their resources to make them all resound smartly on route to the climactic and seriously intended "big bang" finale. Our respect for that rascal Shaw and his theatrical legacy isn’t diminished a whit by our inability to be completely awed by or tolerant of his self-infatuated brilliance.

Editor's Note: While I'm a great Shaw fan, I somehow failed to catch up with this oftenhilarious yet heartbreaking play. But since 2003 I've managed to catch two excellent productions. That's not counting this latest one which Simon Saltzman has quite thoroughly covered above. Reviews of both previously seen productions (wich ran a merciful fifteen minutes shorter) are in our archives: Heartbreak House at the Pearl Theater and Heartbreak House at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Some additional witty quotes from this and other Shaw Plays, as well as links to other Shaw plays may be found in our Shaw backgrounder.
—Elyse Sommer

Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Robin Lefevre
Cast: Lily Rabe, Jenny Sterlin, Philip Bosco, Laila Robins, Swoosie Kurtz, John Christopher Jones, Byron Jennings, Bill Camp, Gareth Saxe.
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
From September 15, 2006 to December 10, 2006--extended to December 17th; opening October 11 (can be expected to be extended). Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. 212/ 719 - 1300 Tickets: $51.25 to $86.25)
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on October 5th press preview

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