Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Dave Lohrey
This play, of all the plays currently open in New York, strikes me as most likely to provide an audience with an equal measure of instruction and delight. As the words pour from the mouths of this enchanting ensemble, one finds one's mind racing to keep pace with the author's prophetic vision. What makes this play so bracing is its daring treatment of a rather subversive topic -- not, one should say, the mere dangers of war, but the more destructive power of our complacency in the face of impending national disaster. Now if that is not prescient, I don't know what is.
The Pearl consistently dips into the great works of the Western Canon and its company of actors is always reliable and capable. This production, however, is among the best in several seasons and sets a new and higher standard.
Everything comes together to form a seamless whole. Much of the credit goes to Shaw himself for having created such a brilliantly fluid piece of the theater, but the Pearl's production could easily have gone astray. That it stays on track, pulling the audience along for over 2 1/2 hours is a testament to the fine work of the production team. Beowulf Boritt's scenic design works well to create the sense of both a spacious English country house and a ship. It is a design that wisely avoids unnecessary clutter. Liz Covey's costumes run the gambit from bohemian casual to formal dinner wear. If you've been dying to return to Gosford Park to catch a glimpse of Edwardian attire, this is your chance.
The cast is unusually solid. Standouts include Rachel Botchan (Ellie Dunn) and George Morfogen (Captain Shotover) who charm and please from the moment they first appear. They seem to have found a real bond, a human sympathy, that is both touching and utterly persuasive. Morfogen is at once fun to watch and marvelous to listen to. His voice matches Shaw's wit, as his beard evokes Shaw's appearance. He is so profoundly sympathetic that we hang on his every line.
Others in the ensemble take some getting used to, but gradually earn one's admiration. This was especially true in the case of the sisters Ariadne (Robin Leslie Brown) and Hesione (Joanne Camp), but this may have been because their social standing calls for a stylishness that quite properly clashes with Ellie's lack of pretension. Dan Daily's Boss Mangan deserves special mention in that he brings out the human side of the seemingly heartless businessman. He, like the rest of the cast, is quite adept at being comically serious.
The third and shortest act is the shortest but most powerful and has the ensemble positively humming along. What more could one ask of a production of Shaw's heartbreaking Heartbreak House?
Postscript from the Editor: Having never seen this play, I went with David and shared his enjoyment of this terrific and all too timely display of Shavian wit. It was inspired by one of my favorite plays, The Cherry Orchard, and now joins my list of plays I could see several times. I thought the director met the challenge of combining fun and frivolity with Shaw's serious intent, and the same is true of the cast. As a collector of theatrical quotes, I found memorable lines just popping out at me -- especially from George Morfogen's wise and lovable Captain Shotover. I've added some to CurtainUp's Bernard Shaw backgrounder which you can read by clicking on his page in our Playwrights Album Series and scrolling down to "Quotes."
If you go to see Heartbreak House, as I recommend that you do, be sure to pick up the Pearl's always informative Playgoer's Supplement. The current issue tells you that the play, completed in 1917 at the time of World War I, had to be withheld from the footlights because as Shaw later explained "the Germans might at any night have turned the last act from the play into earnest." --- Elyse Sommer