Theater review by Helen Shaw
George Bernard Shaw’s strange 1919 comedy Heartbreak House operates on two levels. On its surface, it’s a wacky riff on Chekhovian country-home mishegas, but in its bones it’s a bitter antiwar allegory. The daffy old inventor Captain Shotover (Raphael Nash Thompson) is our reluctant but philosophical host; he’s lightly spiritual and into dynamite, with a dash of nautical bluffness. All his houseguests are romantically confused: His daughter Hesione (Karen Ziemba) wants to dissuade her friend Ellie (Kimberly Immanuel) from marrying the capitalist creep Boss Mangan (Derek Smith), though Ellie has actually fallen for Hesione’s husband, Hector (Tom Hewitt). Since Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne (Alison Fraser), is fluttering at Hector too, Hesione—still dedicated to the no-capitalists-for-Ellie project—decides to seduce Mangan. Can’t keep it straight? Neither can they, mainly because they’re panto outlines, as brittle as icicles. Each character is a type—the scientist, the aristocrat, the bohemian, the moneymaker—arranging and rearranging alliances as war comes inexorably toward them. Who cares about trivialities in the face of violence and catastrophe? The ruling classes, that’s who, and Shaw wants to plant ’em a facer for it.
Shaw’s play is a hellishly difficult combination of portentousness and froth, and the Gingold Theatrical Group’s revival at Theater Row has trouble keeping the comedy aloft. Director-adapter David Staller desperately wants us to have a good time; he adds sing-alongs and gives us the divinely silly Jeff Hiller, who at one point plays three minor characters at once. But the ensemble as a whole simply can’t locate the play’s comic spark. Thompson plays Shotover as a kindly walrus, robbing him of his dangerous zing; the diamond-sharp Fraser does a great Cruella de Vil turn, but Ziemba is positively sleepy. No one can agree on how big to play, how goofy to be, how broadly to wink. This proves fatal for both the farce and the polemic. In a Shaw play, if the match doesn’t light, the gunpowder won’t burn.
Lion Theatre (Off Broadway). By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Staller. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.