Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of HEARTBREAK HOUSE at Hartford Stage
Through June 11th
When I was studying English lit and theatre back in college in the seventies (oops, just dated myself), I must admit that I was a cultural and an intellectual snob. Sure, I took Shakespeare with the rabble, but Milton was a god for the elite few. I felt the same about the seminars on Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Brecht. These were authors whose works were for the intelligentsia to be read by the hearth and digested with a snifter of brandy (or a hot cup of tea in my case). The thought back then of actually seeing most them of performed, enjoying them as a form of entertainment rather than purely intellectual stimulation, and seeing their relevance to modern times was – well, unthinkable. Yes, there were arthouse productions of Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, and Ghosts somewhere in the bowels of an Off-Off Broadway house like Caffé Cino, but they certainly eluded mainstream commercial houses. (It is still on my bucket list to one day watch Steve McQueen in the film version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.)
When I heard Hartford Stage was doing George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, needless to say I was less than enthused. My all-time favorite work by Shaw was Pygmalion, the inspiration for My Fair Lady, followed closely by Major Barbara and Man and Superman. I only dimly remembered Heartbreak House; recalling mainly that it was influenced by Chekhov and was a comment upon the upper class and the impact of the First World War.
Even after I refreshed myself about the content of the play from reading the Director’s Note and the well-written preface by Dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson in the program, I turned to my wife and co-reviewer and said, “This is going to be draggy.”
I should have known better, especially after interviewing the director a while back. Darko Tresnjak is a creative genius and a visionary both as Artistic Director of Hartford Stage and as a director in his own right. I should have known that Darko would play the trump card and end up even trumping George Bernard Shaw’s original version of the play. It was like the film The Devil’s Advocate when John Milton (who is really Satan), played by Al Pacino, tells his protégé Kevin (played by Keanu Reeves), “No matter how good you are don’t ever let them see you coming.” I never saw Darko coming.
Darko Tresnjak’s Heartbreak House is a brilliantly creative tour de force; stunning, provocative, thought-provoking, side-splittingly hysterical at times and, most importantly, thoroughly entertaining. I wish I could divulge the most engaging element of the play, but I cannot bring myself to spoil the reveal and I hope other reviewers will refrain also (although I may have left a few Easter eggs for you detectives out there).
The plot involves a gathering of several guests (some invited and some not invited) at the home of inventor and former seaman, Captain Shotover. The welcomed guests include Ellie Dunn, her father, Mazzini Dunn, and wealthy industrialist Boss Mangan (who also is Ellie’s fiancé) – all of whom are invited by Hesione Hushabye, the Captain’s eldest daughter. The uninvited guests include Lady Utterword, the Captain’s estranged younger daughter, who jumped ship early on and married a “numbskull,” and her brother-in-law, Randall Utterword, who has the hots for his sister-in-law and follows her around like a puppy dog. Are you confused yet? Wait, it gets better. It seems Hesione’s agenda is to talk Ellie out of marrying Boss Mangan whom she knows is doing it for the money and because her father is in debt to him. Ellie eventually confides that she is in love with an adventurer named Marcus Darnley who, turns out to be, Hesione’s womanizing husband, Hector Hushabye. To complicate things further, Hector falls for his sister-in-law Lady Utterword. Obviously, with a plot like that, the stage is set for massive heartbreaks across the boards (pun intended).
Darko has managed to take a hundred year old play and make it shockingly relevant to today’s political and social milieus. (It may be only “play worthy” and topical for the next four years, but I digress.) My recollection of Shaw’s original play was plodding, long-winded, and didactic in a heavy-handed way. This production was not at all as I recalled it. There were the Shavian eccentricities of the leisure class, of course. There was the overt symbolism of “dreams” and “sleeping” embedded in the very names of the main characters – Hushabye. The house was designed as the stern of a ship (great scenic design by Colin McGurk) and was a metaphor itself for the country at the time and how it was drifting aimlessly, in need of an expert navigator. Those original elements were all there, but the dreary nihilistic pessimism was absent (not that Hartford’s version of the play was necessarily optimistic). The repartee was sharp, witty, and at times, hysterically funny. Like a good dramaturg, I went back and researched the history and evolution of the play.
When the play opened in 1920, Shaw was criticized for being long-winded and somewhat of a bloviator in regard to his anti-war criticisms and his potshots at the upper class and its laissez-faire attitude during World War I. Shaw wrote the play in three acts – Hartford condensed it into two. And when it opened in a major revival in 1983 to critical praise (ten years after I had read it in college) featuring Rex Harrison and Amy Irving, the character of Billy Dunn, a burglar, had been entirely excised by the director Anthony Page. Apparently, all later productions, including Hartford’s, followed in its wake. While I did not compare dialogue line-for-line to Shaw’s original version and that of later ones, I am certain that Darko in his magnificent direction, made salient updates to the play to make it more sea worthy to today’s audiences with their short attention spans.
The cast is simply superb. Miles Anderson is wonderful as Shaw’s principal spokesperson, Captain Shotover. He deftly displays a nice arc to his character by initially playing the somewhat shallow, senile octogenarian, but whom we come to eventually learn, through the navigation of the play, is really a deep, sagacious, perceptive individual (and still lustful at his age). Indeed, Mr. Anderson brings a nice mix of Shakespeare and Coleridge to his character and, by the end of the play, he is like the Ancient Mariner spouting wisdom in iambic pentameter bytes. Dani De Waal is perfect as Ellie Dunn, the seemingly naïve ingénue who, in reality, is a man-eating shark (pun intended) and, like Jaws, has met her match in the Captain. Tessa Auberjonois was utterly upper-crust as Lady Utterwood, channeling a hybrid between Joan Crawford and Marie Antoinette. Her character jumped ship at an early age to marry for money and peerage against her father’s wishes. But like all of Shavian characters, they are not what they appear to be. By the end of the play we see that she is brokenhearted like everyone else and, in the end, she is a lost soul with daddy issues. (I must confess that I felt as old as Captain Shotover watching her performance. I had seen her father, talented actor Rene Auberjonois and Richard Dreyfuss in Julius Caesar at the BAM Theatre Company in the seventies before she was born!)
Stage and screen veteran Charlotte Parry is spot-on as Hesione Hushabye, one of the more transparent characters in the play, a woman torn between her love for her husband and his blatant infidelity. She channels a bit of Hillary Clinton, a smart, pragmatic, and ultimately political creature who changes what she can and accepts what she cannot. Speaking of channeling, Andrew Long as Boss Mangan trumps everyone at channeling current political figures. He gives a rousing, engaging, positively riveting performance. My jaw dropped further than Marley’s ghost when he appeared on stage. The arc of his character – from obnoxious industrialist to penniless puppet – is outstanding. Shout outs also must be given to the sublime performances given by the rest of the cast: Keith Reddin as Mazzini Dunn, the “real” businessman in the play; Stephen Barker Turner as the charming cad of a husband, Hector Hushabye (another Shavian oxymoronic character); and Grant Goodman as the sycophantic Randall Utterword. Last but certainly not least is Mary VanArsdel as Nurse Guinness – the only character in the play who represents the working class. You know that as she watches the antics of the bourgeois around her that she is shaking her head and repeating to herself, “What fools these mortals be.”
The last thing in the Director’s Note in the program was the question, “What did Shaw mean with the last words of his great play?” At the end of the play, nearly all of the characters survive a near death experience during an air raid bombing. Hesione Hushabye says, “What a glorious experience! I hope they come again tomorrow night!” to which Ellie remarks, “Oh, I hope so.” While I am not a dramaturg and just a poor plebian with a thirst for theatre, I will take a stab at answering Darko’s question. Actually, I think Shaw provides an answer to it several lines before that when the Captain states, “I tell you happiness is no good. You can be happy when you are only half alive. I am happier now I am half dead than ever I was in my prime. But there is no blessing on my happiness.” I think that Shaw is saying that while it is in our nature as human beings to seek peaceful sill waters, we as human beings need the storms at sea, the wars, the turbulence, the drama to be happy. As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” No matter what the answer is, you need to have Hartford Stage’s dramatic version of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House in your life.
Fill your mind with the meaningless stimuli of a world preoccupied with meaningless things, and it will not be easy to feel peace in your heart. – Marianne Williamson, The New York Times bestselling author, teacher, and lecturer
On the surface, George Bernard Shaw’s biting Heartbreak House tells the tale of a colorful clutch of vapid, bickering characters whose lives come to overlap in the oddest of ways. Underneath, however, it is about deception, power, meaninglessness, indifference, morality, and individuals’ shortcomings among many other themes. It is about England’s ruling class on the eve of World War I. And it is provocative, cerebral, and classically Shavian.
The assemblage takes place in 1914 at the Sussex home of Captain Shotover, a salty old patriarch, seaman and inventor of dangerous things, who is constantly trying “to attain the seventh degree of concentration” – tranquility – but it seems to mostly elude him except when he’s consumed copious amounts of rum. Shotover’s home, which strongly resembles the stern of a ship, is a strange place that is chock full of surprises – and where blood is not thicker than water, money doesn’t buy class, cream doesn’t necessarily rise to the top, and everyone purports to be something they are not.
Led by the incomparable Darko Tresnjak, his insight, instinct, and interpretation of Shaw’s text are a wonder to behold. Before the production even begins and as you take your seat, you are visually drawn in to the impending action with the eager anticipation of a child waiting to unwrap a beautifully wrapped gift. I cannot help but shout out straightaway to Colin McGurk for the most incredible scenic design; his consummate attention to detail in crafting the Shotover home is a marvel, to say the least. In addition, Ilona Somogyi’s costume design evokes time and place with the utmost perfection.
The entire lot are self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and self-pitying – and they all become inextricably entangled by greed, recklessness, confusion, and quirky love triangles, which liberally abound. When penniless Ellie Dunn (a perky yet headstrong and fiery Dani De Waal) shows up with her bags on the Shotover doorstep, madness ensues immediately when – what bad manners! – she’s not even greeted by her hostess nor house staff, including Nurse Guinness (a delightful Mary VanArsdel), who has cared for the family for decades. As the play progresses, Nurse also proves ineffective at reigning in the chaos of the clan and is responsible for a number of the production’s comical moments. We soon learn that Ellie’s hostess, the meddling Hesione Hushabye who is Shotover’s eldest daughter, has invited her for a visit in order to talk her out of marrying the wealthy (and creepy) Boss Mangan, because, love, after all, trumps money (or at least it should). Charlotte Parry is flawless in her portrayal of the unfiltered, Bohemian charmer and Andrew Long as Mangan is a sidesplittingly funny and wholly unlikeable. Poor Ellie didn’t know what was coming but she holds her own and better than one might expect. And it isn’t that she doesn’t believe in love, because we learn she’s actually found it – elsewhere – in the tall tale-telling “Marcus” who turns out to be someone else entirely.
The master of the house, Captain Shotover, is brilliantly portrayed by Miles Anderson, whose crankiness is more laughable than disagreeable; he is worldly, wacky, and wise. Whether it’s his advancing age or continual imbibing, we cannot be sure, but he often appears confused (or maybe not) as to the identity of another of his guests – that of his youngest daughter, Lady Ariadne Utterword – who had flown the coop more than two decades prior. Played to the hilt by Tessa Auberjonois, Ariadne is a challenging chatterer who hinges everything on status and appearances. Enter Hector Hushabye (a terrifically dashing Stephen Barker Turner), Hesione’s husband who is a gadabout of the most interesting variety. Invited also is Mazzini Dunn (a sharp Keith Reddin); he is Ellie’s father and – surprise – isn’t exactly who he appears to be at all. He also is repeatedly mistaken to have been a pirate by the eccentric Shotover. Finally, Randall Utterword, deftly played by Grant Goodman, is Ariadne’s brother-in-law who has a less than brotherly interest in her.
We’re soon all scratching our heads as this darkly comedic yarn unfolds around cups of tea and stores of dynamite. All of the characters and events harken to the politics of the time, but we also see the strained bonds of family, the alternating foolishness and wickedness of human nature, and what it means to sell one’s soul.
Kudos to the entire crew for creating this outstanding theatrical work – Matthew Richards for Lighting Design; Jane Shaw for Sound Design; Jason Allen for Wig Design; Ben Furey as Vocal Coach; Elizabeth Williamson as Dramaturg; Greg Webster as Fight Consultant; and Binder Casting, Jack Bowden, CSA.
Folly, foibles, falsities, and near-farcical elements will keep you off kilter. This one is not for pure escapist entertainment and while Shotover is front and center, tossing back his rum, you might want to save your trip to the lobby bar until intermission to keep your wits about you. Heartbreak House is dark and it is light, it is cynical and it is bewitching – and it is altogether masterful.