Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Politics of a Broken Heart

"Heartbreak House" presented by the Roundabout Theatre at the American Airlines Theatre, December 5, 2006

George Bernard Shaw's tale of bohemians in disregard for the real world around them has taken up on 42nd St. in the Roundabout's latest revival. It's a star-studded cast of quite talented performers, including Broadway veterans Swoosie Kurtz, Philip Bosco and Byron Jennings.

I attended a pre-show discussion, during which I learned that the play has a subtitle "A Chekovian Fantasia in the Russian Style." It's too bad that the Roundabout left that line out of the playbill - it certainly helped me understand the evening's proceedings. Another bit I learned - that Shaw believed, like Brecht (Mother Courage), that was was primarily a capitalist movement - that only the rich benefit from a war.

(Another Shavian quote I hadn't heard before: "Games are for people who neither think, nor read.")

The play takes place at the residence of Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco), retired from the Royal Navy, where he discovers that his daughter Hezione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) has invited a young woman, Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe) to visit. After a bit of what seems like Wildean confusion (or is it that Wilde appeared to present Shavian confusion in his plays?), the captain's other daugher, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins) also arrives to visit for the first time in 23 years. Though time has been kind to Ariadne, no one seems to recognize her at first. Quickly resolved, Hezione's motives are soon revealed that she plans to stop the impending marriage of the young Miss Dunn to the industrious capitalist, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), a peer and perceived salvation of Miss Dunn's father, Mazzini Dunn. Both Mr. Dunn and Lady Utterword's brother-in-law Randall (Gareth Saxe) arrive in short order to get things underway.

Everywhere one turns, a heart is broken, either already, or soon-to-be. Ellie has been wooed by another man who has stirred her passions (who turns out to be Hezione's husband, Hector Hushabye). Randall pines for his sister-in-law, following wherever she travels. Ariadne and Hector also strike a fire in each other, which of course, cannot be consummated. From all of this Ellie dubs the residence "Heartbreak House."

Hezione, known for her beautiful red hair and dressed in a greek-interpretive sheath of red, quickly appeals to Miss Dunn to give up her plans to wed and to find a younger, more suitable love match. Miss Dunn feels a debt of gratitude to Mr. Mangan for bailing her father's failed business, and thus her family, out of bankruptcy. Marrying him would provide her a life of comfort, free of the money worries she's always known. Besides, she says, "My mother married a very good man. She did not want me to do the same." As Hezione, Ms. Kurtz comes out with both barrels blasting. Her Hezione seems patterned after Roz Russell, with a little Mae West tossed in to give some edge. I'm not sure the role is suited for this kind of edge. She does look exquisite, with the fat, red sausage curls a-flying.

Lily Rabe, fresh from last season's revival of "Steel Magnolias" makes a lovely Ellie. An archetypical ingenue, Ms. Rabe carefully reveals that there is more to her Miss Dunn than meets anyones' eye.

Laila Robins nails the society flirtations and insecurities of a wife of a traveling government official. She demonstrates the art of politics being able to appear one way to some and another way to others. This paradox is carried through nicely in both of her asymmetrically designed costumes.

As for the gentlemen, Mr. Bosco makes his second visit to Heartbreak House with this production. In the last revival, he played the role of Boss Mangan, casting that can be easily underst00d and supported. His Captain Shotover, comes across like Henry Higgins minus the elocution lessons. Delivering his lines in small bursts of rapid-fire, he dashes on and offstage without acknowledgement. This is later explained in the play. He does have a couple of excellent lines:
  • A man's interest in the world is only the excess of his interest in himself.
  • Any man can rule with a stick in his hands.
In the second line above, Shaw leaves no opportunity to make his political theories known. How interesting that such a statement is still so relevant today.

As Hector Hushabye, Hezione's handsome husband, Byron Jenning delivers another solid and thoughtful performance. Hector has been courting Miss Dunn under a false name, and has roused her passion, though not enough to break her engagement. Hector is also a kept man, serving only to please Hezione, as she encourages him to raise passions wherever he goes. (She's quite the modern woman, no?)

As Ellie's father, John Christopher Jones presents a mild-mannered milquetoast of a man, even moreso than the story seems to support. Mr. Dunn, a "soldier of freedom," has been in love only once - with his wife. He's a poor businessman, having started one with an excellent potential, but didn't have the foresight to work through the ups and downs of its early phases. As a result, he's always lived from check to check, barely getting by and raising his family. Mr. Jones seemed to miss a couple of opportunities to sparkle a bit, first during Hezione's attempted seduction in Act I and again in his pajamas and robe in Act II.

As Boss Mangan, Bill Camp has the unfortunate task of having to appear as hypnotized during a long stretch. His Mangan is obtuse and forward, thinking that his forwardness is perceived as cleverness. During some of the more physical moments of humor, I was reminded of Alec Baldwin's self-concious acting from SNL.

Robin Lefevre, on his second Broadway outing has taken quite a broad stroke with this revival. Sets by John Lee Beatty invoke a ship, quite suitable to Capt. Shotover. Jane Greenwood's costumes are spot-on, from Hector's sheik's robes to the dinner attire of white tie and tails. Peter Kaczorowski has achieved a lighting designer's goal of being effective while not being noticeable.

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