Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Karen Ziemba, Tom Hewitt, Lenny Wolpe, Kimberly Immanuel, Jeff Hiller, and Alison Fraser in Heartbreak House
Photo by Carol Rosegg
A snappy cast under David Staller's direction presents George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, a delightful romp with enough slashes of black and gray to be as pungent as Shaw himself. He was an eccentric provocateur of the late 19th century who wrote prodigiously about what he saw and what he felt. An anti-war/anti-political greed polemic in the form of a farce, Heartbreak House was written before World War I and Shaw re-re-wrote it for its first staging in 1920, when the horror of the war had faded in the public's eye. The current production was timed for the pre-World War II days in London, the time when Hermione Gingold stepped off the cabaret revue stages and became a theater actress.
According to Staller, this rendition of Heartbreak House refers back to the original staged version and has never been produced before.
It is September 1940. Prepare to be greeted at the Lion Theater with 1940's posters and banners, piles of sandbags and Union Jacks strung across the walls. As the Ambassador Theater, a revue is interrupted by an air raid aler, sending audience and cast to the basement shelter.
Hoping to entertain the audience until the all-clear, the performers ask, "So let’s see, what we can we offer you tonight? Do we have any acrobats, jugglers, singers?" With bombs and blackouts, it would be a frightening moment with the threatening war on the horizon, except that the cast turns the mood upside by performing Shaw's Heartbreak House. Tossed in are some old-time sing-along favorites, like "Pack Up Your Troubles" and a plucky "Smile." (A Playbill insert contains words of six songs, along with '40's ads for Ovaltine, Hermione Gingold's favorite, and Tolly Ale).
Designed by Brian Prather, Heartbreak House is a villa in 1914 Sussex, packed to overflowing with a theater paraphernalia, a piano tucked where you can hardly see it, a wardrobe with gowns, feathers and veiled hats. There is an upper level, equally cluttered. Owned by free-wheeling Captain Shotover, it is a house where diverse visitors drop in, bringing their problems, pondering about their futures. There are no rules, class privileges are scoffed and social rules once accepted are now nonsense.
A versatile cast includes Captain Shotover, played with eccentric affability by Raphael Nash Thompson, is up in years, a sailor and inventor. He has two daughters, Hesione Hushabye (Karen Ziemba), who runs the inn at her father's command, unruffled and unbelievably tolerant as the wife of an unapologetic womanizer, the audacious Hector Hushabye (Tom Hewitt). Her sister, who left the family 23 years ago, is the self-absorbed Lady Ariadne Utterwood (Alison Fraser), who now suddenly re-appears, having left her layabout husband. She is surprised that no one greets or even recognizes her.
Appearing early in the play, Kimberly Immanuel plays Ellie, who shows up with an invitation from Hesione. She is apparently an innocent but designing young woman, planning to marry, but who and why? "I'm always expecting something. I don't know what it is; but life must come to a point sometime."
Ellie is perhaps engaged (it is uncertain) to Boss Mangan (Derek Smith), a suspicious businessman with slick hair who had bamboozled her trusting but dim father, Mazzini Dunn (Lenny Wolpe). Before her situation is decided, she falls in love with the dashing Hector and later, with Randall, Lady Ariadne's husband who is now in love with Hesione. Randall is one of three parts played flamboyantly by Jeff Hiller. Ellie later solves her marriage problem with a surprising move that re-scrambles everyone else's already interwoven lives. Oh, what a tangle web we weave....
And in the distance, the sound of bombs is heard.
The first act has sluggish moments, before picking up the pace again. The second act, as well, stalls in the final unweaving of various love affairs, marriages and non-marriages. Yet, in all, David Staller brings out the relevancy of G.B. Shaw's diatribe against war coached in hilarity and eccentric characters against, in the distance, the threat of destruction.
Barbara A. Bell designs impressive costumes for the cast that embellishes their individuality and demeanor that helps define their characters. Lady Ariadne's gown is gorgeous, lush and expensive. Hesione, the practical sister, wears a deep red, confident yet fun-loving. Hector, played with vainglorious flair by Hewitt poses and relishes in his fine tailoring and his embroidered adventures. Slapping on an apron gives a hilarious touch to Hiller as the laid-back maid, Guinness, one of his three parts.
A fitting example of G.B. Shaw, who said about his work, "Whether it be that I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world: I was at home only in the realm of my imagination."
Gingold Theatrical Group
Lion Theatre at Theater Row
410 - West 42 Street, New York, NY
Previews: Aug 28, 2018. Opening: Sept. 9, 2018. Closing: Sept. 29, 2018
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes. One intermission.
Cast: Alison Fraser, Tom Hewitt, Jeff Hiller, Kimberly Immanuel, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Lenny Wolpe, and Karen Ziemba
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Directed: David Staller
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Also can be read on TotalTheater.com