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A CurtainUp Review
Heartbreak House

Old fashioned people think you can have a soul without money. They think the less money you have, the more soul you have. Young people nowadays know better. A soul is a very expensive thing to keep: much more so than a motor car—Ellie Dunn

"The script I have assembled employs Shaw's original hand-written version along with the subsequent typed manuscripts, numerous letters with directives, and various production scripts he'd worked on or approved. He had hoped to use the play as a warning, but then it was too late. Art as activism was his approach, and he had hoped to jolt the world out of its complacency. By the time the world saw the play, they were ready to forget all about war and so Shaw ended his published version as a wistful reminder of the devastation. To the best of our knowledge, this original version has never been produced."
— A note from Director David Staller
heatbreak house
Tom Hewitt and Kimberly Immanuel (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In hands other than those of the Gingold Theatrical Group, (a company devoted to presenting works inspired by the progressive humanitarian precepts of George Bernard Shaw), the production of Heartbreak House now on Theatre Row under the direction of David Staller could be seen as a bit loopy. It is, however, enjoyable, largely due to a troupe of performers who flip the flippant dialogue and the silliest of situations in this anti-war masterpiece on its ear.

To begin, Shaw's longish and admittedly talky (in the Chekhovian style) play from 1920 (although begun in 1914) has been cleverly placed within a frame by Staller that suggests London during the 1940 Blitz. A troupe of musical theater players who had been in the midst of performing in a revue in the Ambassador Theatre's main auditorium has been advised to lead the entire audience (on Theatre Row that's us) down into the theater's basement during an air raid. Piles of sandbags at the entrance to the theater are a clue to the seriousness of the moment. Any other cause for serious thought are quickly shoved aside. Staller, the GTG's Artistic Director and artist/scholar on all things Shaw, has apparently given this talented troupe carte blanche to let the Shaw shine.

There is little reason to take exception to this purely comical approach by a director renowned for his passion and commitment to all things Shavian. Heartbreak House may not reside on the same plateau with either Pygmalion or Major Barbara but some productions of it linger lovingly in my memory. There's the Circle in the Square's glittery production in 1983 that included Rex Harrison, Rosemary Harris, Dana Ivey and Amy Irving. More vividly recalled is the Roundabout's 2006 production with Philip Bosco, Laila Robins and Swoosie Kurtz (my review for Curtainup). But I do not think either was in actuality meant to be as unapologetically funny in performance and as funnily staged as is this one.

Welcoming us down in the depths, the members of the revue still in their costumes proceed to entertain us with a sing-a-long (lyrics are provided) while also requesting anyone who might recite, juggle or tumble to get up on stage. No volunteers at the performance I attended.

The stage setting, wonderfully designed by Brian Prather, is a marvel of piled-up furniture, stored set pieces, banners, ropes and bric-a-brac. A couple of choruses of "Pack Up Your Troubles" and the company suggests that they put on for our pleasure, you guessed it, Heartbreak House. The entr'acte and at other appropriate intervals, of course, will demand our invaluable participation in such non Shavian hits as "Smiles," "Till We Meet Again," and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."

Presto-chango and the company is at home with Shaw's razor-edged banter and portraying as amusing a group of eccentrics as you are ever likely to imagine. It is easy to imagine then that we are magically in Captain Shotover's Villa in Sussex, England in 1914. Within it and at its helm is the bearded eighty-year-old, cantankerous, acerbic Captain (an excellent Raphael Nash Thompson). Like a teenaged rapscallion, he spends his time mostly in his loft above the fray, inventing both metaphysical and doomsday weapons...that is until he chooses to descend to insult his house guests with a shower of nasty bon mots ("I drink to keep sober"),

Kimberly Immanuel provides a vivacious portrayal of Ellie Dunn the idealistic but far from naive ingénue who keeps pace beautifully with the to-the-manor-glued pretentions that will be surrounding her. Funny does not do justice to the body language deployed by Alison Fraser as the estranged, high-toned Ariadne who elevates upper-class snobbery and frippery to a level of self-serving grandiosity that has yet to be achieved by any member of any society. She is stunningly gowned by designer Barbara A. Bell, who deserves high marks for all the fine frocks.

Ariadne's more composed sister Hesione is played by the always ingratiating Karen Ziemba who finds a wry balance between the dreamy and the droll. This, as she struggles to hold on to a husband not worth holding on to.

Lenny Wolpe is winning as Ellie's puppyish father who's less naive than others are led to believe. Far from taking a back seat among this calamitously fated crew are a dashing Tom Hewitt as the fabricating womanizer Hector Hushabye and Derek Smith, as Ellie's capitalist suitor Boss Managan. But the more intentionally well-placed moments of hilarity come from the vaudevillian posturing of Jeff Hiller who plays multiple roles that in once instance find him making a series of quick changes in full view.

The play is noted for a speech at its end that prophesizes the end of the world as a bomb drops on the dynamite stockpile stored under the noses of a family of vain, lying, idle, selfish and satirically politicized inhabitants. Not only do the actors in this company support the way Shaw gave us leave to laugh at the stupidity afoot of their own making, but they make it clear how much they are relishing the opportunity to give it all they've the face of a very real danger. Famed as being a genuine roast of the middle classes, the play lends itself only too well to exposing them for what they are.

Heartbreak House remains chock full of explosively funny dialogue and hosts a bevy of feckless characters who woefully define a frivolous society. But it remains for the climactic jolt to remind us of that rascally Shaw's more serious intentions and of his theatrical legacy.

For details about Shaw's life and work, links to other plays reviewed at this site (including several of Heartbreak House) and samples of his wit and wisdom, check out h the Shaw section of Curtainup's Playwrights' Album.

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Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by David Staller
Cast: Kimberly Immanuel (Ellie Dunn), Jeff Hiller (Nurse Guinness/Randall Utterword/The Burglar),Raphael Nash Thompson (Captain Shotover), Karen Ziemba (Hesione Hushabye),Alison Fraser (Lady Ariadne Utterword), Lenny Wolpe (Mazzini Dunn), Tom Hewitt (Hector Hushabye),Derek Smith (Boss Mangan)
Sets: Brian Prather
Costumes: Barbara A. Bell
Lighting:Toby Algya
Sound: Cate DiGirolamo
Production Manager: Cate DiGirolamo
Stage Manager: Chris Clark
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes including 1 intermission.
Gingold Theatrical Group at the Lion on Theatre Row 410 W. 42nd St.
From 8/28/18; opening 9/09/18; closing 9/29/18
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 9/26/18 press preview

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