The cast of Gingold Theatrical Group’s ‘Heartbreak House.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
I have fortunately never been sequestered to a bomb shelter or basement in times of war. But if I were, I might consider braving the consequences rather than enduring Bernard Shaw’s rambling family/socio-political comedy Heartbreak House.
Such is the construct of Gingold Theatrical Group’s revival, set by director David Staller in the basement of London’s Ambassadors Theatre in the first days of the city’s World War II blitz. This isn’t to say this production is without merit, thanks, in large part, to several stand-out performers that nimbly navigate the text. Mr. Staller has a deep dramaturgical and historical understanding of the playwright’s work (he adapted this version from a range of sources, including hand-written drafts, letters, and various approved scripts) and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace.
But the framework falls flat from the onset as the troupe quickly tosses together the makeshift production (featuring detailed set design by Brain Prather in The Lion’s awkwardly cavernous space). The acting company coaxes the audience into a sing-a-long of “Pack Up Your Troubles” — a World War I chestnut that rang familiar in a sparse few the night I was in attendance — and magically we’re transported to Sussex, England, circa 1914.
The action takes place in the home of Captain Shotover (Raphael Nash Thompson) as a slew of family and guests (some invited, others not) wander in and out, pontificating about class, fidelity, race, and war. These include the captain’s adult daughters Hesione and Ariadne (a serviceable Karen Ziemba and the deliciously over-the-top, gravely voiced Alison Fraser); their husbands Hector and Randall (a blustery Tom Hewitt and the lanky, scene-stealing Jeff Hiller, triple-cast as the housemaid Guinness and a burglar); and Ellie, a young woman (a bland Kimberly Immanuel) hoping to manipulate her way into a secure place in society.
Many of Mr. Shaw’s zingers are preserved, and cumulatively, remind us that not much has changed in more than a century of family and societal strife. “How can you love a liar!” bemoans Ellie, to which Hesione replies, “I don’t know. But you can, fortunately. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much love in the world.”
The multiple plots careen in so many different directions that not even Captain Shotover can steer them back on course, including the arrival of the aforementioned pious burglar and Ellie’s bizarre ability to hypnotize people, a device that should be firmly relegated to a Las Vegas casino act. The comedy takes a dark turn in its final moments, not unlike today’s landscape, which appears chockfull of eyebrow-raising idiocy, lest we forget that World War III could obliterate us all at the push of a button.
After an interminably long series of ramblings, those residing in Heartbreak House somehow seem resigned to their fate as Captain Shotover proclaims, “Courage will not save you; but it will show that your souls are still alive!”
Mr. Shaw was onto something, perhaps too many things — its message further convoluted by a setting that diffuses the work rather than igniting it.
Theatre Row – The Lion Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Through September 29
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.