"This house is full of surprises for them that don't know our ways,” says an elderly servant to a young woman making her first visit to the country home of the eccentric, seafaring Captain Shotover and his bohemian brood.
Not only surprises but delights, judging from the Roundabout Theatre Company's effervescent revival of George Bernard Shaw's meaty masterpiece, a play he grandly called "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes."
Chekhovian? Well, yes. Rueful, witty and chock full of the wordy banter that makes Shaw so difficult to pull off. But not to worry. Director Robin Lefevre has assembled a top-notch cast, including Philip Bosco and Swoosie Kurtz, for the production that opened Wednesday at the American Airlines Theatre.
We are in the twilight of Edwardian England on the eve of World War I when life was to irrevocably change. The batty Shotover, truly an ancient mariner, is a stand-in for Shaw, tossing off canny observations on life, love and politics.
As played by Bosco, perhaps this country's most expert interpreter of Shaw, Shotover detonates the play with delicious common sense. The actor, whose full white beard makes him look like a slightly off-kilter Santa Claus, is a skilled comedian and his expert comic timing make the most of Shaw's humor.
And that humor delights in poking fun at various types of Englishmen - and women. There's Shotover's flirtatious daughter, Hesione Hushabye, played by a divine Kurtz, her hair done up in a mass of red ringlets. Hesione takes her sauciness seriously and so does Kurtz. As Hesione's equally extravagant husband, Byron Jennings blithely suggests a matinee idol gone to seed.
Together, they represent a foolishness that will soon be swept away in a conflagration that will decimate a generation.
Equally outrageous in her own way is Hesione's long-absent sister, Ariadne, who has returned home from a long sojourn overseas as a diplomat's wife. Laila Robins hilariously luxuriates in the snobbery of this woman's Englishness. And then there's Randall, Ariadne's nebbishy, flute-playing brother-in-law (Gareth Sax) thrown in for good measure.
Into this bizarre environment comes young Ellie Dunn, who is smitten with Heslone's flamboyant husband. It's the girl's worldly education that preoccupies much of the play. And with an enchanting Lily Rabe as Ellie, her transformation into one of those shrewd, practical women Shaw so admired becomes a delight to watch. Rabe, who made her Broadway debut last season in "Steel Magnolias," is a major find.
The playwright doesn't neglect monetary and political concerns either. They are represented by Ellie's benign, idealistic father, (a gently dithering John Christopher Jones), who, of course, has absolutely no business sense.
The expertise in capitalism belongs to Boss Mangan, portrayed by a robust Bill Camp. The man is unscrupulous but successful so why shouldn't Ellie consider his offer of marriage.
Nautical allusions abound in "Heartbreak House," and it's not just Shotover’s frequent references to the sea. Designer John Lee Beatty's lavish country home suggests the wide expanse of an ocean worthy galleon.
Despite all the wit, an undercurrent of sadness snakes through "Heartbreak House," particularly in the play's elegiac third act. The old order in England is slipping away, a ship of state getting ready to sink. Yet Shaw and an excellent Roundabout production makes this last voyage theatrically buoyant.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of "Heartbreak House" begins with a woman seated on a couch, asleep.
She's not the only one I saw catching zzz's during this enervating production that ran aground last night on Broadway.
That nautical metaphor is intentional. George Bernard Shaw's 1919 black comedy takes place in a ship-shaped home in the English countryside, where a family of oddballs and acquaintances collide. It's September 1914, and war has begun.
The house is home to Capt. Shot-over (Philip Bosco), a wily 88-year-old sailor-turned-inventor who lives with his bohemian daughter Hesione (Swoosie Kurtz) and her hubby, Hector (Byron Jennings), a serial cheat. Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe), Hesione's young friend, arrives with her poor father (John Christopher Jones) and much-older fiance, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), a rich businessman. Rounding out the group are Shotover's long-absent daughter, Ariadne (Laila Robins), her besotted brother-in-law Randall (Gareth Saxe) and the high-handed housemaid (Jenny Sterlin).
It's a fairly self-possessed pack. They spend the first two acts jabbering - about romance, money, hypnosis, dynamite (Shotover collects it). In the third act, they're still blabbing as bombs rain down and explosions shake the house. "What a glorious experience!" says Hesione. "I hope they'll come again tomorrow night."
The satirist Shaw uses the house to represent England and wartime indifference. The timeliness is clear. But Robin Lefevre's listless direction and torpid pacing, together with lackluster performances, rob the play of its wit, sting and linguistic richness.
Bosco, a veteran of both Broadway and Shaw, is a big surprise as he mumbles several of Shot-over's zingers. Rabe, lively as a cagey young woman, and Camp, who blusters broadly as a creepy capitalist, fare the best in the bunch.
John Lee Beatty's versatile set sufficiently evokes the sea and rotates to reveal an outdoor area in Act III. Jane Greenwood's wardrobe reeks period chic and sheik (Hector dresses like a swashbuckler), but Kurtz's seriously unflattering getups are more boo-hoo than boho.
It wasn't so much a heartbreak - more like a troublesome case of heartburn.
George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" is one of those classic plays that promises more than it delivers - but rarely has it delivered so little as it did last night at the American Airlines Theatre in an oddly flaccid staging by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Despite a strong cast led by the estimable Swoosie Kurtz and the redoubtable Philip Bosco, the play just lies flat on the stage, as disconsolate as a discarded party favor after the ball is over.
Mind you, the surgery that British director Robin Lefevre has carried out on Shaw's hapless carcass hasn't helped much. In the cause of brevity, he's cut out a vital character - a burglar - who has much the same Cockney humor with which Doolittle, the dustman, enlivens "Pygmalion."
Shaw's play is vaguely Chekhovian in that it follows people in a society on the disquieting edge of change - here, an upper- middle-class family in a large country house immediately before World War I.
The house is owned by an extraordinarily aged retired seaman, Capt. Shotover, (the dependable but here subdued Bosco), and desultorily run by his daughter Hesione Hushabye (the dependable and here unsubdued Kurtz).
Hesione has a flirt of a husband, Hector (Byron Jennings), and a flirt of a long-lost sister, Ariadne Utterwood (Laila Robins), who in turn has a flirt of a brother-in-law, Randall (Gareth Saxe).
Enter Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe), who's infatuated with Hector and lovelessly engaged in marriage to an apparently rich industrialist, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), an unscrupulous business associate of her father, Mazzini Dunn (John Christopher Jones), both of whom are brought along for the ride.
Nothing much happens, for most of the characters are busy at nerveless games of catch-as-catch-can't. As Lady Utterwood says to the tame lady-killer Hector: "It is quite understood that we are only playing."
They are, and it is. That is the difference between Shaw and Chekhov: No one is "only playing" in Chekhov. Shaw's bloodless people pandering to the playwright's audience with the occasional obvious paradox or simple epigram have no seriousness - they know neither pain nor joy, not even wealth or poverty.
The trouble is that Shaw never seems to have known much about sex, passion, love or heartbreak. He's all brains and no heart.
Yet "Heartbreak House" - with its ending of an ironically disquieting air raid and sense of a civilization going down for the count - can be given a certain poetic flamboyance that's lacking here.
The acting is a little too measured, perhaps too tidy. Lefevre's direction rightly emphasizes the central role of the stealthily opportunistic Ellie, and Rabe - talented daughter of playwright David Rabe and Jill Clayburgh - has the right kind of wan radiance.
Yet, like John Lee Beatty's unexpectedly dowdy settings (Jane Greenwood's stylish costumes are far more to the point), the performances are surprisingly routine.
The time will soon be ripe for fresh political leadership. With a presidential election just a couple of years away, we need to start looking for viable new candidates, fellows with those outside-the-Beltway views voters are said to cherish.
I'd like to suggest the American electorate consider the merits of Captain Shotover, the straight-talking old salt currently and eternally presiding over "Heartbreak House," George Bernard Shaw's comedy about British gentry waltzing toward the apocalypse.
Qualifications? He has military experience and fresh ideas. And he's not beholden to big business types, whom he colorfully refers to as "those hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts." Which reminds me: He already has a crack speechwriter on staff.
True, the candidate has a few glaring liabilities. The tUmors about his alcohol consumption are well founded. But there's always rehab. The attention span is a little short, but is that such a problem in politics these days? Of course he's a fictional character too. Considered from all angles, though, that may not be a drawback. Imaginary people can't send instant messages.
As brought to fine, irascible life by Philip Bosco in this rippingly good revival that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, the captain has a crusty charm that surely cuts across all demographics. The man talks such good sense that you might not notice that a major plank in his platform is blowing up the human race. Shotover aside, the time seems unusually ripe for "Heartbreak House," perhaps Shaw's richest and saddest play about the follies of humanity, as rehearsed by the British upper classes in the shivery days before World War I. In this quasi-Chekhovian comedy set at a country house slightly unmoored from the real world, Shaw indicted a culture saturated in false values, its most privileged citizens corrupted by idleness and indifference, content to drift toward the abyss.
With the world seemingly on endless edge these days, and with plenty of Americans feeling disengaged from the circus of our cultural and political discourse, Shaw's bracing analysis of a civilization in decline seems more valuable than ever.
Valuable too is the care taken by the Roundabout Theater Company and the production's director, Robin Lefevre, to see that Shaw's words are enttUsted to actors able to transform his dense streams of talk into melodious music. This occurs with gratifying ease in this felicitously cast production, devoid of television or movie names on the upward or downward arc of their celebrity. Mr. Bosco alone has almost a dozen major Shaw productions on his resume, including the last Broadway revival of "Heartbreak House," in 1983, in which he played the battered capitalist Boss Mangan. If none of the other seasoned actors here can match that impressive tally, they all possess the gifts needed to breathe life into Shaw's extravagantly comic but still human characters, men and women with eloquent tongues and ever-ready opinions who also have hearts capable of breaking and souls worth saving.
The soul in most immediate need of saving belongs to Ellie Dunn, played with a soft radiance and flashes of fire by Lily Rabe, who is fast becoming an invaluable asset to the New York stage. Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) has invited the good but penniless Ellie for a weekend in the country. Hesione is determined to prevent Ellie from giving her heart and hand to the boorish but rich businessman Boss Mangan (Bill Camp). The plot dizzily turns on this seemingly unmomentous question: Will Ellie marry for money?
Her sentimental education does not proceed smoothly. Hesione's plan to sell her on the joys of true love is fouled almost instantly when Ellie learns that the dashing, mysterious figure who has set her heart aflutter is none other than Hesione's husband, Hector (Byron Jennings). Enter heattbreak and disillusionment. Vowing to proceed with her marriage to Mangan, Ellie concludes, "If I can't have love, that's no reason why I should have poverty."
Heartache and disillusionment are easier to obtain than a proper tea in the mad household presided over by Hesione and her father, Captain Shotover. Hector is bewitched and bothered by the arrival of Hesione's fanatically genteel sister, Ariadne (Laila Robins). Boss Mangan is not only hypnotized by his fiancée, but also by Hesione, who toys with him like a cat teasing a trapped mouse. Only Captain Shotover, who barges through the farcical fumblings like a ship cutting through rough waters, and Ellie's father, the pragmatic failed businessman Mazzini Dunn (a hilariously distracted John Christopher Jones), escape the romantic spell that haunts the house.
But not even they can ignore the darker shadows that loom across its imposing, pseudo-nautical façade (rendered with unnecessary heaviness by John Lee Beatty). The characters in "Heartbreak House" flirt and pose and trade acid aper~us about manners and morals, but they are hunted, furtive figures too, uneasily aware of the world's ugliness and their own idle complicity in the pervasive moral darkness.
Grim, proto-existentialist reflections strike discordant notes in the sparkling ribbons of talk, as when Hesione confesses to Ellie, "I am just wondering how much longer I can stand living in this cruel, damnable world."
Swathed columns of silk (the rich costumes are by Jane Greenwood), Ms. Kurtz transmits the weariness beneath Hesione's romantic swagger without blunting her wit. This expert comic actress may not fit the textbook definition of "siren," as Hesione is called, but she may just be the most seductive woman on a New York stage right now.
Unless that nod goes to Ms. Robins, who locates the essence of her character's shallow allure in a languid, liquid strut and a smile both entrancing and devouring.
As Hector, Mr. Jennings is not a natural lady-killer, but he fakes it well. Boss Mangan occasionally seems to be performing in a one-man melodrama of his own devising, but Mr. Camp certainly conveys the character's shell shock. Of Mr. Bosco the most and least that can be said is that he is sublime as Shotover, a man of spent passions with just enough energy left to take a fervent interest in Ellie's fate.
Shaw's comedies champion the power of reason fired by passionate feeling. They are themselves documents that argue for intelligent discourse as a means of ameliorating the ignorance and stupidity of the world. But in "Healtbreak House" pessimism trumps sagacity, as Shaw seems to throw up his hands in despair. In the peculiar last scene the exhausted men and women greet the arrival of bombs as if they were lovely fireworks, or a burst of Beethoven, to borrow Hesione's macabre metaphor.
It's an unsettling and dispiriting image: well-groomed humanity greeting its own destruction with an inviting smile. Shaw surely meant it to shock his countrymen into an awareness of the possibly dire consequences of a continued political and moral paralysis.
As transmitted in this fine production, it still sends a shiver down the spine. Almost a century after it was written, "Heartbreak House" provides a keen comic rebuke to cynicism, self-indulgence and detachment, those all too easy responses to the bitterness of the world, which is still too cruel after all, and surely as damnable as ever.
Anyone who thinks that George Bernard Shaw harbored a soft spot for the set he sends up in Heartbreak House need only refer to its preface.
The title, Shaw wrote in 1919. "Is not merely the name of the play" he first conceived in the lead-up to World War I. "It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war." Chekhov had already tossed off a few studies of this metaphorical dwelling, Shaw noted, as had another Russian: "Tolstoy did not waste any sympathy on it. It was to him the house in which Europe was stifling its soul."
I could continue quoting Shaw, but he would be a tough act to follow. Suffice to say that House is, beneath its urbane surface, a dark, sobering piece of business. The trick in staging it is to mine both the breezy wit and the sense of foreboding that Increasingly envelops Shaw's privileged, petty characters.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, that task falls to a cast of accomplished pros. Under Robin LeFevre's sturdy, reverent direction, the actors certainly capture the cerebral tang of Shaw's dialogue.
Swoosie Kurtz brings a wry swagger to the role of Hesione Hushabye, an aging heartbreaker holding court at her father's swank home In the English counbyside. Lalla Robbins Is suitably stuffy as her similarly glamorous, flirtatious sister. Lady Adriadne Utterword, exiled years ago after marrying, In Dad's words. a "numskull" (albeit a titled one).
Byron Jennings puts a droll spin on Heslone's own dashing but vapid husband, whose obvious affection for his wife doesn't preclude lustful thoughts about Adriadne or another, younger guest, Ellie Dunn. Lily Rabe, the daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe, proves crisply fetching as this Ingenue, one of Heartbreak’s more appealing Inhabitants, who is being courted by her father’s decidedly unappealing friend.
Yet only a few of the players here manage to summon the poignancy underlying Shaw's dense prose. They include Bill Camp, who as Ellie's suitor finds pathos in a capitalist pig, and John Christopher Jones, who exudes an easy tenderness as Ellie's pure-hearted but economically challenged dad.
The ever-reliable Philip Bosco shines in another sympathetic role, that of Hesione and Adriadne's father, Captain Shotover. The cranky patriarch is entrusted with some of Shaw's most pungent and revealing lines, and Bosco serves them with a wry grace that’s ideal.
It's the one performance in this Heartbreak House that matches the power and elegance of the text. Well, almost.
Staging Shaw well is never straightforward, and doing right by "Heartbreak House," the playwright's indictment of the complacent leisure class he felt was driving Europe toward its ruin, is especially tricky. The 1917 play starts as a comedy of manners that flirts with farce before lurching into a darker mode of despair cloaked in loopy cynicism. Even thematically, it's hard to pin down, ruminating on marriage and morality, class and respectability, business and politics, self-reliance and providence. So it's a pleasant surprise that director Robin Lefevre and a sparkling ensemble tame the unruly material into a sound, stimulating production.
Shaw's plays are more works of discussion than conclusion. That said, if there's a moment that comes close to revealing the essence of this rambunctious enigma of a play, it arrives in the final scene. Eccentric 88-year-old inventor Captain Shotover declares the business of an Englishman is navigation: "Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned." Greeting the impending catastrophe of World War I with an air of inevitability, Shotover recognizes the need for men to govern themselves carefully.
Played with flawless command by veteran Shavian interpreter Philip Bosco as a man both jocularly distracted and profoundly anchored, the mad captain and his pragmatic approach to life reflect Shaw's own world-weary views. Puttering around his house in the Sussex countryside, Shotover sighs at the "foolish lives of romance and sentiment" being pursued by his family, and at the "money and comfort and hard common sense" sought by the younger generation.
The captain sees as futile the struggle to achieve happiness and hang onto it. Having spent his best years seeking danger and adventure, the soulfulness of the character is in his reluctance to abandon himself in his old age to "the happiness of yielding and dreaming instead of resisting and doing."
Built to resemble the ship of Shotover's seafaring days (John Lee Beatty's set strikes an inventive balance between stately and quirky), the house functions well as a microcosm for a society without foundations and drifting.
Shaw presents his characters -- the various members of the Shotover household and their visitors -- as one thing before peeling away layers to reveal them as something else. One of Lefevre's accomplishments as director is the subtle means by which he calibrates these shifts.
In Lily Rabe's smart, seductive perf, Ellie Dunn at first seems guileless and proper, only later displaying her considerable wiles. She's willing to marry boorish businessman Boss Mangan (Bill Camp) because he apparently saved her idealistic father, Mazzini (John Christopher Jones), from poverty.
As much an oddball as her father and similarly lacking in a politeness filter, Shotover's manipulative daughter Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) is determined to stop Ellie from a joyless marriage. She correctly intuits the girl has deeper feelings for another man and seems not the least perturbed to discover it's her own ladykiller husband, Hector (Byron Jennings). Also visiting are Shotover's other daughter, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins), and her useless aesthete brother-in-law Randall (Gareth Saxe).
Borrowing a Chekhovian model in a play he described as "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes," Shaw allows his idle characters to banter and flirt before sounding the alarm that their poor grasp of economic and political realities has them heading for disaster. "Every drunken skipper trusts to Providence," warns Captain Shotover. "But one of the ways of Providence with drunken skippers is to run them on the rocks." Shaw then turns the tables in the final-scene air raid by killing off only the practical capitalist.
While Lefevre embraces the ambiguities of the play's second and third acts (here compressed into a single act and minus the original act two's burglar character), he could have begun coaxing out the work's melancholy strains a little earlier. (Arguably, though, it's Shaw who could have improved on the foreshadowing.) The production is at its most sure-footed when the characters are trading barbs and witticisms, before they turn reflective. But the director and his cast score by allowing every delicious aphorism to land gently, without hammering them.
In addition to Bosco and Rabe, there are some impressively tuned instruments in the cast. Crowned in flaming ringlets and costumed (handsome work by Jane Greenwood) like she's about to go on in a Greek tragedy, Kurtz is hilarious as regal, unflappable Hesione, brutally blunt and with an endless appetite for mischief. Robins' wonderfully droll Lady Utterword has all the grand gestures and airs of a woman who has distanced herself from her "horribly bohemian" family but is far less conventional than she appears.
Jones is warm and winning as Ellie's ineffectual father, again not nearly as clueless as he seems, while Saxe is amusingly self-deprecating as infantile fop Randall and Jenny Sterlin milks wry humor out of the housekeeper role.
As the pumped-up blowhard who reveals his weakness, Camp works a touch too hard at conveying bluster first and befuddlement later, and Jennings, while always capable, seems an imperfect fit for suave lightweight Hector.
But those weaker notes are not fatal ones and this ultimately is a satisfying, impeccably designed production of a clever, complex play that's probably easier to get wrong than right.