If it's possible to find yourself enjoying a play while simultaneously feeling rather underwhelmed by the whole thing, then The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is perhaps the best example of sorry/grateful to be found on Broadway these days.
I'm very grateful for their daring in mounting this difficult piece that must have trumpeted its contemporary social commentary to British playgoers at the conclusion of World War I, but seems lost at sea here.If the theme-heavy play is a bit lacking in plot to justify its two hours and forty-five minutes length (there has been some cutting, including an entire character), there is still that Shaw wit to make us laugh.And if the characters seem too much like mouthpieces for the author's didactic speeches, well, rarely is one lectured at with such sumptuous language.If director Robin Lefervre never quite finds a way to make the play satisfy as a whole, there are still plenty of fine individual contributions.
Subtitled A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes, Heartbreak House is a comedy modeled after that Anton Chekhov laff-riot, The Cherry Orchard, depicting a group of leisured upper-crusters living in blissful ignorance that the world is being taken over by those boorish types who obtain wealth through industry without bothering to learn culture and manners.In his prologue, Shaw says of Chekhov, "He knew that our utter enervation and futilization in that overheated drawing room atmosphere was delivering the world over to the control of ignorant and soulless cunning and energy, with the frightful consequences which have now overtaken it."
Indeed, John Lee Beatty rather ingeniously provides a drawing room adrift in the ocean in designing the nautically minded home of retired Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco), who dabbles in both mysticism and socialism.His bohemian daughter, Hesione Hushabye (a wildly funny and eccentric Swoosie Kurtz), is receiving a visit from Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe), a friend who plans on dumping her dashing lover Hector (Byron Jennings) in order to save her save her father (John Christopher Jones) from poverty by marrying the crass capitalist, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp).By the play's end their home is under an aerial attack, being bombarded by explosive symbolism.
If the production doesn't seem to dig very deeply into the dramatic elements, the cast is certainly amusing; especially Kurtz who is deliciously draped in reddish fringe by costume designer Jane Greenwood and sports curly red locks by wig designer Tom Watson.Veteran Shavian Bosco is a hearty commander and Camp makes for a fine comic foil as the target of everyone's put-downs.
"When the play was begun," says Shaw, "not a shot had been fired; and only the professional diplomatists and the very few amateurs whose hobby is foreign policy even knew that the guns were loaded."Heartbreak House's guns are certainly loaded, but the sparks to fire them off are lacking.
Photos by Joan Marcus:Top: Philip Bosco and Lily Rabe
Bottom:Byron Jennings and Swoosie Kurtz