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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
I read George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House years ago but saw my first production just a year and a half ago at the Off-Off-BroadwayPearl Theater. As I observed in my postcript to my colleague David Lohrey's review, I liked seeing the dark Shavian wit come alive on stage enough to add this 1919 satire to my list of plays which warrant more than one viewing.
My second viewing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival is cause for rejoicing and sadness. The rejoicing is two-fold -- first, because director Anders Cato handsome streamlined production confirms my enthusiasm; second, because it comes during a season when we can also see Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard(August 11 to 22, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival), the chief inspiration of Shaw's British version of a disintegrating society represented by a group of people at a country estate. (It was initially subtitled A Fantasia in the Russian manner on English Themes). What's sad is that the darkening times that made the comedy so devastatingly relevant in 2003 have become ever darker and more supportive of Shaw's pessimism. In fact, today's conflicts and overall political and social climate exceed even Shaw's grim view of what led up to World War I and what wass likely to follow. (In his lengthy preface he foresaw just one generation before there would be another conflict with Germany and Russia).
Set in a Sussex country house which is laid out to resemble the ship once commandeered by its eighty-eight year old owner, Captain Shotover (John Horton), but run in a manner that's the very opposite of ship-shape order, Heartbreak House is consistently humorous. But while there are enough doors to support a farce, this is humor at its blackest, with Shaw laying bare the futility underneath his characters' comic maneuverings to, as one character puts it, not only have the last word but to have their way prevail. The property outside one of the doors including a gravel pit where Shotover is determined to concoct an explosive to rid society of what he calls the "hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts." Clearly, the real heartbreak of this house and its occupants and visitors is the decaying society they represent.
Like any country house comedy, this one begins with the arrival of a guest. That guest, a young woman named Ellie Dunn (Sarah Drew), has been invited by Shotover's lovely Bohemian daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Marin Hinkle), who lives with her father (and off the royalties from his inventions) along with her handsome, incurably flirtatious and prevaricating husband Hector (Garret Dillahunt, playing what today might be described as a middle-aged boy toy).
Once we've met the outspoken family retainer Nurse Guinness (Elizabeth Ingram) and hear a few of Captain Shotover's aphoristic pronouncements, various other residents and visitors arrive. Thus we meet Hesione, who's invited Ellie's father (Patrick Husted) and a rich industrialist named Boss Mangan (David Schramm), in order to break up the loveless May-December engagment between him and Ellie. While Hesione was unaware that her husband had a previous meeting with Ellie (adding a made-up name to his made-up tales of adventure), she is neither surprised or upset. To round out the party, Shotover's long absent and very conventional younger daughter, Lady Ariadne Utterwood (Sarah Knowlton), arrives, followed by her wimpish brother-in-law (Allyn Burrows).
For two and a half hours these larger than life people walk in one door and out of another, always stopping long enough to discuss culture, business, love, marriage -- in short, all the issues Shaw was passionate about. Under Cato's direction, the nine actors are generally on the mark in interpreting the darker shades beneath their characters' often laugh aloud doings.
John Horton's Captain Shortover didn't quite rivet me to his every move and well-timed bon mots as George Morfogen did in the Pearl Theatre's production, but his performance is solid and sympathetic. A longer and less artificial looking beard would have gone a long way towards sharpening the connection between him and the author for whom Shotover is a stand-in. The actor who almost steals the show is David Schramm as Boss Mangan. He brings out the human as well as the humorous side of the seemingly heartless businessman of unlimited wealth.
The smaller roles of Nurse Guinness and Mazzini Dunn are ably handled by Elizabeth Ingram and Patrick Husted. Everyone is appealingly and authentically dressed by costume designer Olivera Gajie.
Jeff Cowie's visually stimulating set comes with a poop deck instead of a study for Captain Shotover and turns quite smoothly to the garden side for the short but powerful closing act. As the boat-like decor of the house seems a metaphor for a sinking ship of state, so other pivotal characters can be seen as symbols of English society. Captain Shotover, though now desperate to save civilization from destructive greed, symbolizes the empire's origins by way of seafaring adventurers who conquered foreign lands. That empire is embodied in Lady Utterwood and the " numbskull " husband who has made her mistress of numerous government houses. The gentle Mazzini Dunn symbolizes the ineffectual liberal while the desperate need to join the new and old England is represented by the union of young Ellie and old Shotover -- a "celebration". hardly interrupted by the literally explosive ending.
The review of the Heartbreak House production mentioned earlier can be read here. The "quotes" header on our George Bernard Shaw background page will take you to some of the many memorable lines from this heartbreakingly sad and funny play.
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