TIMELESS SHAW: HEARTBREAK HOUSE (Hartford Stage)
Bravo to Darko Tresnjak and Hartford Stage for producing George Bernard Shaw’s HEARTBREAK HOUSE. It’s easy to see why it’s seldom staged. Subtitled by Shaw “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, this parable about WWI in unskilled creative hands can be an unwieldy mix of dark Chekhov, drawing-room comedy, comedy, social satire and trenchant drama, with hints of the absurd. But, under Tresnjak’s focused and taut direction, its marvels emerge - with one major exception - with probing authenticity.
First staged in 1921, HEARTBREAK HOUSE posits seven characters of privileged status (plus a maid) convening for a dinner at the country house - in 1914 on the cusp of Britain’s patriotic entry in WWI - of octogenarian sea captain Shotover, which he shares with his elder daughter, the Bohemian Hesione, and her handsome philanderering husband, Hector. Guests are Hesione’s estranged younger sister, social climber Lady Utterwood, and her foppish, aristocratic brother-in-law, the naïf but opportunistic Ellie, poor and friend of Hesione, betrothed for financial convenience to the middle-aged, nouveau riche financier Boss Mangan, and Ellie’s father, a feckless and intellectual Mazzini, former business partner of Mangan.
The characters are individually defined by their selfish interests, and as a group indifferent to the oncoming prospect of war. Shotover’s manor is designed as a ship, and danger is alluded to by the dynamite stored on the property as part of Shotover's cockamamie notion to invent a psychic cure for the explosives. Metaphorically, the characters embark on a journey to destruction.
Shaw’s language is a wonder, the dialogue replete with a dozen zingers about topics which could pop from this week’s The New Yorker: patriotism (“You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race”) , feminism (“If we women were particular about men's characters, we should never get married at all”), socialism (Shaw being a Fabian) vs. capitalism, love vs modern morality (Shaw being on the fringes of the Bloomsbury swells). The emotional grist comes as the “ship’s” motley crew and passengers realize - or not - that they are not what they seem to be, how they fail to navigate - to extend the metaphor - uncharted waters. Ellie, for example, moves from an engagement to the nouveau-riche businessman to settling down to household security with the Captain, nearly 60 years her senior. What’s love got to do with it? Where’s the heartbreak? Shaw’s title is grand irony, and therein the pathos lies.
The cast is generally excellent. Miles Anderson as the Captain conveys credible eccentricity and irascibility. Charlotte Parry as the Bohemian sister Hesione played believably but Tessa Auberjonois as the conservative Lady Utterwood less so. My major objection to the production was no fault of Andrew Long (who played the dad in the Broadway production of CURIOUS INCIDENT) as the business fraud Boss, but with the vulgar choice of director Tresnjak to present his character as Trumpian, dyed blond-orange wig and all. It reminds me of the current London production of THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI where Ui is starkly presented as a dictator who spouts “make America great again.” Obvious depictions like these are unnecessary. With playwrights as great as Brecht and Shaw, the text can speak for itself. Worse, in this otherwise estimable HEARTBREAK HOUSE, Boss as Trump plays like a cheap trick.
Scenic designer Colin McGurk, once again, makes brilliant spatial use of the thrust of Hartford Stage with the bow of a ship and its decks to mimic the architecture of the Captain’s house, but the decorative elements are too crisp and clean - almost antiseptic - to suggest a civilization on the verge of collapse. And the final scene, where a fatal air-raid hits the Captain’s dynamite cache, is technically weak in sound and special effects - particularly UNexplosive, literally - short on spectacle, certainly, to have much dramatic impact. Perhaps that is Tresnjak’s intention, to underscore that even in the face of calamity, human nature can pretend nothing’s wrong. Indeed, there’s ready example today of moral paralysis. As the French would say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. “ Shaw would agree.