A slightly overstuffed play of sociological satire and political fervor, Heartbreak House emerges clever and bright in Gingold Theatrical Group’s rollicking version. The terrific cast looks great, accents work, direction is creative, collaboration delivers an infectiously good time.
September 1940. We find ourselves, audience and cast, taking shelter in the basement of The Ambassadors Theatre in London. A facsimile folder, replete with period advertising, instructs what to do should there be an Air Raid. In order to distract and occupy time, the gung-ho cast decides to continue with Shaw’s play. A waitress and night watchman volunteer to fill in for missing company members. At the beginning of each Act, the fourth wall fades as we sing along with “Pack Up Your Troubles” and “Smiles” quelling anxiety about the proximity of bombs.
Tom Hewitt and Alison Fraser, Karein Ziemba and Tom Hewitt
The play: Captain Shotover’s Sussex, England, manse houses the ostensibly senile veteran himself (Raphael Nash Thompson), his quick-witted daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Karen Ziemba), her womanizing husband, Hector Hushabye (Tom Hewitt), and wry, I’ve-seen-it-all housekeeper, Guinness (Jeff Hiller). Their home keeps open doors. One never knows who’ll pop in or be invited to stay creating a petri dish for confined humanity.
Hesione has invited young friend, Ellie Dunn (Kimberly Immanuel), for the weekend in order to dissuade her from marrying much older industrialist Boss Mangan (Derek Smith) out of gratitude for financially helping her father, Mazzini Dunn (Lenny Wolpe). Both Mazzini and Ellie’s fiancé are also asked down.
Kimberly Immanuel and Derek Smith
Though the ingénue seems determined, Hesione discovers Ellie’s enamored of an actor with whom she’s had a single meeting. Hoping to foster those feelings, the hostess is taken aback to learn said “actor” is, in fact, her husband Hector playing up to yet another potential conquest. Without sophistication, Ellie’s chagrin is far more than that of her friend. She declares her heart broken.
Add to this mix the unexpected arrival of Hesione’s sister, Lady Ariadne Utterword (Alison Fraser), estranged (so long she’s literally not recognized), for having married “a rich nincompoop.” The beguiling patrician is trailed by her puppy-dog brother-in-law, Randall (Jeff Hiller). Oh, and later, there’s a burglar with an interesting angle (also Jeff Hiller) who knows both The Captain and Guinness.
Karen Ziemba, Jeff Hiller, Lenny Wolpe
Long story short: Hesione seduces Mangan for Ellie while loving Hector. Mangan has second thoughts about Ellie. Ellie twice does a complete turnabout, ostensibly growing up. Both Ariadne and Ellie flirt with Hector who’s careless, but devoted to Hesione. Randall adores Ariadne despite verbal whip cracking (a glorious parentheses). Ariadne notes semblance of propriety allows complete freedom.
Both the Captain and Mr. Dunn are more aware than they first appear…Allegiances and perspective shifts, but all in all, it’s a caucus race (all participants have to run in circles until an arbitrary stop is called). The play grows thin towards the end, but is redeemed by the way it finally finishes.
Raphael Nash Thompson and Kimberly Immanuel
Director David Staller clearly understands farce. From the millisecond pause that implies all, to bull’s-eye inflection, to an irresistible sword fight with unseen opponent, there’s method to his madness. Staging area (the entire theater) is used with variety and imagination. Pacing is spot on. I have only a single caveat: Towards the end, Ellie gloms on to Captain Shotover poking, prodding, and grasping the patriarch in ways that seem completely out of character despite her obvious enlightened transformation.
A winning production.
Jeff Hiller is flat out a comic treasure in the three roles he brings to vibrant, unblushing life. Accent, movement and adroit timing mark this actor with excellence. Hiller even makes eating crackers a winning “bit.”
Alison Fraser’s affected, Machiavellian Lady Utterword is beautifully realized. Every word, gesture, and glance is all of a distinctively droll piece. The seasoned performer knows how to mine a moment without ever doing too much. A lesson in finesse.
Karen Ziemba gives us a well grounded, womanly Hesione who rides tandem between societal expectation and free thinking. It’s easy to believe the character capable of handling her father and errant husband, while also able to seduce a stranger.
Tom Hewitt swings between Hector’s amusing persona and actual, eye-popping, over the top expression. He aptly plays the character without guile. Kimberly Immanuel (Ellie) is a good actress with a lovely singing voice. Derek Smith (Mangan), a cipher in Act I, emerges more distinctive later with the aid of physical performance. Lenny Wolpe (Mr. Dunn) is reliably sympathetic and credible. Ralph Nash Thompson creates an appealing, low key turn. His Captain Shotover is watchful even when apparently dotty, then fully human in his weathered, curmudgeonly wisdom.
Brian Panther (Scenic Design) has done a wonderful job of creating the chockablock, theater cellar (which adroitly becomes Hushabye House) in a small space without making us feel claustrophobic.
Barbara A. Bell’s Costume Design is period appropriate, flattering, and tailored with the attention of couture apparel. Love the music hall/Ziegfeld girl and oh, the robes!
George Bernard Shaw began writing Heartbreak House before the start of WWI putting it aside in response to anger at his trying to discourage participation. The play was rewritten for New York’s Theatre Guild in 1920. Director David Staller, in his eminently scholarly fashion, has created a production that refers back to hand written versions, letters, and production scripts. “By the time the world saw the play, they were ready to forget all about war and so Shaw ended his published version as a wistful reminder of the devastation. To the best of our knowledge, this original version has never been produced.”
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Derek Smith, Karen Ziemba, Raphael Nash Thompson, Tom Hewitt, Lenny Wolpe, Kimberly Immanuel, Jeff Hiller, Alison Fraser
Gingold Theatrical Group presents
Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House
Directed by David Staller
The Lion Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through September 29, 2018
Check out Gingold’s Symphony Space programs