The riotously deranged household George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart dreamed up for “You Can’t Take It With You” is only marginally more eccentrically dysfunctional than the Sussex menage George Bernard Shaw created in “Heartbreak House,” first staged in 1921 and now being given an absolutely sterling new production by the Roundabout Theatre Company under the direction of Robin Lefevre.
The 88-year-old Captain Shotover, richly realized by the faultless Philip Bosco, doesn’t immediately recognize his long-absent daughter, Ariadne Utterword, nor does her slightly older sister, Hesione Hushabye.
A young guest, Ellie Dunn, is briefly mistaken for a sibling by one of the sisters, while her father Mazzini Dunn, is seemingly totally misremembered by Shotover, a retired sea captain, now the inventor of such questionable products as “a ship with a magnetic keel for sucking up submarines.”
Perhaps Shaw’s whimsical vessel came to the Dublin-born playwright’s mind because during much of the period from 1913 through 1916, when he was writing “Heartbreak House,’ World War I was raging.
Shaw uses the war against the Germans as a device to eliminate a troublesome character, with enemy aircraft scoring a direct hit on a gravel pit in which the dispensable individual is hiding. The moment, coming late in the play, is one of the very few occasions on which the playwright, baldly manipulative though he often was, found it convenient to employ outright violence to bring a play to a logical conclusion.
To be sure, “Heartbreak House” is a long affair, even in the Roundabout’s sprightly, well-paced production in which a single interval follows Act One. Acts Two and Three are served up in a great comic lump running approximately 90 minutes, with the two final acts bridged by one of the loveliest set changes in recent memory.
In the interests of moving things along, director Lefevre has eliminated one minor character, a nameless burglar who turns up late in the proceedings and has the bad luck to accompany the crass Boss Mangan to the gravel pit, where they both perish.
Lefevre’s “Heartbreak House” is a roiling creature of galloping wit, grace and intelligence, delivered by a perfect cast headed by, along with Bosco, Swoosie Kurtz as the elfin, impish Hesione, and the lovely Laila Robins as the vulnerable, psychologically bruised Ariadne.
Lily Rabe, daughter of Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe, a standout in the recent revival of “Steel Magnolias,” holds her own easily in the midst of a gallery of stage veterans whose combined track records, it would seem, add up to a century or so of varied professional experience.
On the male side of the ledger, Byron Jennings and Bill Camp, two of the American Theater’s sadly undervalued treasures, are utterly stunning as, respectively, Hesione’s wandering husband, Hector Hushabye, and Mangan, the doomed seeker for Ellie Dunn’s hand in marriage.
Alone on stage, Jennings takes part in an unopposed comic duel which has to be seen to be believed, dressed as he is, in the garb of a kind of comic opera Lawrence of Arabia.
Camp somehow manages to make Boss Mangan both funny and vaguely evil, and at all times wholly credible, all in all a remarkable achievement.
Gareth Saxe, recently so fine in Mint Theatre productions of plays by D.H. Lawrence and J.M. Barrie, is sleekly effective as Araidne’s brother-in-law, Randall Utterword, a role which, in less capable hands, could easily be a sort of throwaway.
Similarly, the affable John Christopher Jones makes something quietly memorable of Ellie’s relentlessly human father, Mazzini Dunn, an idealistic crusader for lost causes, and an entirely unsuccessful businessman. The same goes for Jenny Sterlin’s work as the household’s loyal retainer, Nurse Guinness, whose participation is minimal but emphatic.
John Lee Beatty’s scenic design, replete with suggestions, as Shaw demanded, of an “old-fashioned sailing ship,” is something of a miracle of warm, rich browns and conforming beiges, highlighted by ship models, nautical lanterns and a pipe organ which, oddly, none ever plays or even sits at.
Jane Greenwood’s costumes are suitable and evocative, particularly the three assigned to actress Kurtz, the first a red number virtually screaming with fringes and flaps, followed by more sedate creations in black and then dark green.
The lighting provided by Peter Kaczorowski is both subtle and beautiful, in addition to which it sets up Shaw’s great Act One closing line. When someone suggests that Overshot, sitting at his desk in the semi-darkness, might have need of another lamp, the canny old boy opines that “money was never made in the light.”
That one line, sharp as the blade of a knife, is an instantaneous reminder of Shaw’s social beliefs, dedicated member of the fabled Fabian Society that he was.
Shaw gave “Heartbreak House” the sub-title “A Fantasion in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” a definition which comes into clearest focus in director Lefevre’s beautifully sculpted final act, when Beatty’s wonderful set has revolved and the playwright’s disparate characters are gathered on the residence’s veranda, listening to the explosives being dropped by enemy aircraft coming ever closer as the minutes pass.
As the air raid begins Hector Hushabye defiantly turns on the lights in the house, but only Mangan and the burglar, whom director Lefevre cut from the Roundabout text, flee to the “safety” of the gravel pit, which turns out to be a fatal misjudgment.
It would be difficult to watch this production’s final moments without thinking of the plays of Anton Chekhov, and it’s true that Shaw himself invited comparison with the great Russian dramatist whom he admired with an ardor he could never muster up for Shakespeare, whom he always, seriously or not, professed to dislike.
Shaw’s whimsical attitude toward the Bard of Avon crops up in “Heartbreak House” with a couple of mild swipes at “Othello,” including a moment in which he has one of his characters suggest that possibly, the Moor may be lying about his daring adventures in distant lands.
Shaw apparently began writing the play as a guest in the Sussex country home of Fabian Socialist Beatrice Webb, where another visitor was Virginia Wolf. Writing in 1913 and predicting international conflict the playwright was regarded as something of a pariah.
He was even more despairing than usual where Europe’s future was concerned, with particular emphasis on Great Britain.
“We are useless, dangerous and ought to be abolished, Hesione says at one point, to which her sister, Lady Utterword, responds with an opinion that “all England really needs is more horses and more stables.”
Like “Major Barbara,” which it somewhat resembles, “Heartbreak House” is a play in which George Bernard Shaw doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the conflicted questions he raises, but he gives his characters some wonderfully witty, and frequently humane things to say.
Toward the close of the Roundabout’s wonderful handling of the third act, actor Bosco, shining in a role previously inhabited by a series of theatrical elder statesmen including Maurice Evans and Rex Harrison, speaks one of Captain Shotover’s richest and most deeply resonant lines.
“The judgment has come,” he says. “Courage will not save you, but it will show that your souls are still live.”
“Heartbreak House” is another gem in the Roundabout crown.