“Heartbreak House” a sublime Shavian commentary

Useless self-absorbed upper class ignores slide into war

By Lucy Komisar

The politics is subtle, the story is arch, the acting sublime. “Heartbreak House,” given a delightful production by Robin Lefevre at the Roundabout Theater, was written by a master who knew how to put his opinions forth with artistry. Shaw dissects the bourgeoisie at the time of the start of World War I. Hersione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) and her husband Hector (Byron Jennings) are useless Bohemians who appear to live, with servants, off the earnings of her investor father, the blustery, white-bearded Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco). (The names are overwhelmingly Dickensian) It‘s not clear what the Captain invents, though he is handy with dynamite.

Her visiting sister, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins), is the wife of a governor of British colonies. (It‘s a time of empire.) The two businessmen of the ménage reflect Shaw‘s views of capitalists. Mazzini Dunn (John Christopher Jones), who is skilled at developing a product, has no head for managing it. His business is purloined by an underhanded investor, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), who turns out to be an intermediary for others. It‘s getting modern, isn‘t it?

The slimy, cigar-smoking Mangan has feigned wealth with which he hopes to snare the inventor‘s charming daughter, Ellie (Lily Rabe), in marriage. Though this young lady declares she will wed to help her father reduce his debts, she obviously desires a comfortable lifestyle herself. But she is also willing to engage in a dalliance with a mysterious suitor, who turns out to be Hector. The ingénue is soon unmasked to be as cynical as Hersione, who has no problem with her husband‘s straying. Also unmasked is the morality of the bourgeoisie.

Hector, with no apparent profession or income, is meek and willing to be Hersione‘s, or anybody‘s, plaything. He dresses up in a red cape (lush costumes are by Jane Greenwood) that makes him look like an exotic potentate. How can you deal with a society where nobody expects much of the people close to them and the ill-used seem to bear no ill will against those who oppress or cheat (on) them?

These are symptoms of moral decay. Shaw‘s introduction to the play is a long essay against war. The play describes the society that allows the war to happen, or is at least so self-involved that it takes no responsibility for it. He says he is writing a picture of “cultured, leisured Europe before the war,” of people who lived in “an economic, political and, as far as practicable, a moral vacuum.” The Captain, who keeps his useless family alive with inventions of destruction, is alternately lucid and absurd.

Boss Mangan is reflective of the practical businessmen who Shaw noted were called on to manage things when war broke out. He explained, “By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended for their supplies of capital.” He said, “They proved not only that they were useless for public work, but that in a well-ordered nation they would never have been allowed to control private enterprise.” Prescient, no?

None of the narcissistic protagonists seems to be aware of what is going on in the world outside. There‘s no sense of danger until the moment when a call comes to douse the lights against an air raid. Shaw‘s subtitle, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” pays homage to Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and the upper classes‘ utter blindness to the world-changing events around them.

The actors make it clear that they can barely see beyond their own little worlds. Swoozie Kurtz is a delightfully cynical, tough Hersione. Ariadne, played by Laila Robins in an exhilarating performance — her voice trills rather than speaks — is self-absorbed, flirtatious, but then cruel to the men she enchants, especially Randall (Gareth Saxe), her husband‘s brother. He is a foppish young man in morning suit, who she treats as a bothersome puppy – or maybe an elegant boy toy. Indeed, one of the subtexts seems to be how women turn men into children.

The other point Shaw makes is that England is a doomed ship. “Hector: And this ship that we are all in? This soul’s prison we call England?” Lady Utterword has the final word with instructions to Randall to “play us ˜Keep the home fires burning‘.”

Director Robin Lefevre creates a mood that clearly evokes the era of the play, but which with the sharpness of Shaw‘s political commentary is somehow “period” and modern at the same time. It couldn‘t be more relevant.

“Heartbreak House.” Written by George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Robin Lefevre. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Starring Philip Bosco, Swoosie Kurtz, Byron Jennings, Lily Rabe, Laila Robins, Bill Camp, John Christopher Jones, Gareth Saxe, Jenny Sterlin.

Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42 St., Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 2pm. Through Dec. 17, 2006. $51.25-$86.25. 212-719-1300. http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/aa.htm.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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