REVIEW: Shaw's “Heartbreak House”

REVIEW: Shaw's “Heartbreak House”

Gingold Theatrical Group (GTG) is the only theatre company in the world that has presented performances of all of George Bernard Shaw’s 65 plays.  An impressive feat for a company that was only founded in 2006, GTG is dedicated to promoting Shaw’s “progressive humanitarian precepts” regarding the dignity, freedom, and equality of all people not only by producing his canon but also through supporting the writing of new plays by like-minded playwrights.

Their latest production, “Heartbreak House”, which opened last night in the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, boasts an impressive roster of actors and a fascinating history.  Shaw wrote the play—in which various ideas and strata of Edwardian society clash at a dinner party in Sussex hosted by the eccentric Hushabyes—before World War I as an allegorical excoriation of the wealthy “leisure class” elites of Europe who did nothing to prevent the outbreak of war.

 
 Derek Smith, Alison Fraser, Kimberly Immanuel, Raphael Nash Thompson, Jeff Hiller, Karen Ziemba, and Tom Hewitt in "Heartbreak House". Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Derek Smith, Alison Fraser, Kimberly Immanuel, Raphael Nash Thompson, Jeff Hiller, Karen Ziemba, and Tom Hewitt in "Heartbreak House". Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

 

“Heartbreak House” remained unproduced on stage until a revised version in 1920 in New York and 1921 in London, and has largely faded into obscurity since—major revivals in 1975 at the National Theatre and 1984 on Broadway notwithstanding.  This adaptation uses yet another revised script composed by director David Staller from a combination of prior versions and records and writings of Shaw’s, and employs an entirely new framing device.

In an effort to drive home Shaw’s message, Mr. Staller begins the play in the basement of the Ambassador’s Theatre in London in September 1940—the early days of “the Blitz”.  Inspired by real events experienced by GTG’s namesake, actress Hermione Gingold (1897-1987), Mr. Staller introduces a meta-theatrical setup in which a hodgepodge of actors, a stage manager, and a waitress decide to put on a play in an attempt to keep everyone calm during a bombing raid.

Their choice?  Why, it’s Shaw’s “Heartbreak House”!  But for diversions at the top and bottom of each act involving sing-alongs with the audience, the balance of the evening is just Shaw’s play, performed in a theatre basement by a disparate troupe of actors who all (somehow) know the lines.  Shaw’s dialogue remains dense and argumentative, brimming with big ideas and ripples of humor.  Unfortunately, though, the air-raid framing device—novel as it may be—backfires. 

As an unnecessary “hat on a hat”, this new framing device robs the now-play-within-a-play of any sense of setting, which is vital to a message premised upon the social status of its characters.  With the atmosphere diffuse and relationship webs already complicated as it is, the play becomes unmoored by an extra layer of presentation and a wide range of acting styles presented—presumably the result of the mix of actors who are mounting this play impromptu.

Karen Ziemba (“Contact”, “Curtains”) is radiant as Hesoine Hushabye, bohemian lady of the house; Alison Fraser (“Squeamish”, “The Secret Garden”) is to-die-for as Lady Ariadne Utterword, a fast talking, vain-glorious patrician and estranged sister of Hesoine’s; and Jeff Hiller (“Bright Colors and Bold Patterns”) is hilarious as always in multiple roles, including Nurse Guiness (the Irish housemaid), Randall Utterwood, and a burglar. 

However, when it comes to Shaw’s intent, most instructive and impactful were the notes in the program, not the action onstage.  Try as they might, great performances all around are not enough to unify the tone and deliver the message of this play in this new adaptation.  With ever-widening income inequality and a world once more increasingly fractured by tribalism, “Heartbreak House” should have deep resonance in this moment.  Instead, GTG’s production never commandingly makes the connection, remaining surface-level presentational.

Bottom Line: Gingold Theatrical Group presents a new adaptation of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House”.  Despite an impressive roster of actors, and a slew of standout performances, a new framing device for the play results in a muddled tone and lack of setting central to communicating the play’s anti-war allegory.
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Heartbreak House
Gingold Theatrical Group
at Theatre Row – The Lion Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: September 9, 2018
Final Performance: September 29, 2018
Discount Tickets

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