Review of Heartbreak House, Hartford Stage
Bravo, Darko Tresnjak! The Artistic Director of Hartford Stage ends the 2016-17 season by directing George Bernard Shaw’s magisterial Heartbreak House, a play that lets the audience take stock of its own situation by gazing at the foibles of the generation that saw the outbreak of the First World War. Shaw, who subtitled the play, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” had in mind Chekhov’s great elegy for a clueless upper-class, The Cherry Orchard. Around the time of our most recent election, Broadway theater-goers saw a revival of that play that, in its revamped concept, missed the opportunity to be a trenchant commentary on our times. Audiences at Hartford Stage have a better offering for gauging how little we learn from past generations’ catastrophes.
In his 1919 preface to the play, Shaw is scathing in his view of the self-delusions of the educated, the indifference of the intelligentsia, and the idiocy of the popular press in the run-up to the Great War, which had just ended. Heartbreak House, which was not produced until the 1920s, was written during the war but is set just before the outbreak of German aggression. The people who inhabit the play are still, as in most drawing-room comedies, primarily concerned with who will marry whom and who is available for a fling. Shaw, though, is never one to miss an opportunity to hector us with sagacity, and here he puts the wisest asides into the mouth of Captain Shotover, a somewhat daft—or crazy like a fox—patriarch suffering an English country-houseful of bohemians, stuffed-shirts, and social climbers. As played by Miles Anderson, in a finely calibrated performance, Shotover is a lot like Shaw—irascible, pointed, and full of curmudgeonly brio. About him flit a host of moths in search of the light.
Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) has arrived, as a less well-to-do friend invited by the Captain’s artsy daughter Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Perry) who lives in her father’s house with her gad-about husband Hector (Stephen Barker Turner). Hesione’s well-married sister, Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), shows up as well, having been absent from the family home for twenty-some years. She is pursued there by her husband’s brother, Randall Utterword (Grant Goodman), a lackluster aristocrat. Also on site are Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Keith Reddin), a figure for political probity contrasted with his employer and sometime creditor, “Boss” Mangan (Andrew Long), a boorish capitalist, complete with Trumpian comb-over. The only attendant servant is the Shotover girls’ old nurse, Guinness (Mary VanArsdel) who is apt to call everyone “ducky,” regardless of age or rank.
Just about everyone makes mention of how peculiar the house is, with its eccentric inhabitants, and Colin McGurk’s wonderful multi-tiered set fully captures Shaw’s conceit that the house should look like a ship, helmed by the old skipper who is fond of nautical metaphors and sea-going reminiscence. The ship of state is sailing for some perilous seas and Shaw would have us know that the generation charged with its safe conduct is all at sixes and sevens. Appealing as they are, there’s a gnawing lack of gravitas in these characters who are without even the Chekhovian delusion that they are profound. And that’s very much the point.
Tresnjak’s production is anchored by four strong portrayals. Anderson, as Shotover, is everything he should be, while De Waal’s Ellie moves from sweet naivete to a sharply registered youthful confidence. Her strategic sense of her position is one of the more engaging aspects of the characters on view here. She is abetted by her friend, who presumes to be a mentor, and Charlotte Perry’s Hesione, quite fetching in a costume with more than a hint of Bloomsbury, put me in mind of Eileen Atkins, and there’s not much higher praise than that. Then there’s the comic relief: Andrew Long’s Mangan looks Trump and acts a bit Sydney Greenstreet, a mix that makes him a rather put-upon villain of sorts who, like our current President, is both out of his element and in over his head.
Other key roles are handled well here but it’s hard to warm to the characters. Tessa Auberjonois hits all the right notes as the “siren” Lady Utterwood, but the lady’s a pointless embellishment, and her current would-be lapdog, Randall, is even less necessary. Similarly, Hector Hushabye, supposedly a suave ladies’ man, pales beside the more compelling male roles. Here Shaw’s keen eye for the vanities of this set doesn’t make for enduring characters. It takes a Wilde to put them on and take them off at once.
The other interesting role is Mazzini Dunn—named for the Italian revolutionary—who might be more forceful if there were more for him to do. Keith Reddin gives him an air of distracted pleasantry but rises to the occasion of a diverting flirtation with Hesione. At another point he characterizes his high class betters as “very charming, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people.” He means it as a compliment, but his author looks over his shoulder to nudge us that such fine qualities can’t save their bearers from perdition. At the play’s close, the abyss is close to home indeed, and these fine people feel little more than curiosity and the thrill of something unprecedented in their jaded lives.
Heartbreak House’s inhabitants can wear on one a bit in the stretch, but the play is well-worth the attention, if only because Shaw knows how to work dialogue and Tresnjak knows how to work the Hartford Stage space to give us a feel for these lightweight leaves about to be swept into a deluge. Along the way, everyone learns something about the subterfuges of class and wealth and the need for deft navigation in troubling times.
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Scenic Design: Colin McGurk; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Consultant: Greg Webster
Cast: Miles Anderson; Tessa Auberjonois; Dani De Waal; Grant Goodman; Andrew Long; Charlotte Parry; Keith Reddin; Stephen Barker Turner; Mary VanArsdel
May 11-June 11, 2017