No director in New York is more intimately connected to the work of George Bernard Shaw than David Staller, whose Gingold Theatrical Group has spent the past 13 years presenting staged readings of every single play penned by the great 20th-century writer. So it’s not altogether surprising that Staller’s deep understanding of Shaw and his friendship with late actress Hermoine Gingold (for whom his company is named) come together in the company’s first major Off-Broadway production: a delightful and incisive version of Shaw’s 1919 dramedy Heartbreak House, now at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row.
In fact, Staller has taken a page from Gingold’s real life by placing us in a London theater during the World War II blitz (cleverly designed by Brian Panther) and having the play performed by a fictional troupe of actors to keep frightened audiences entertained during an air raid. The conceit works in multiple ways, from letting the cast (mostly musical theater stars) show off their talents in a trio of group sing-alongs to explaining why one actor (the always hilarious Jeff Hiller) plays three smallish roles (including one uproarious scene that features two of those characters). And anyone who already knows the ending of the play (which has had two Broadway revivals in recent decades) can anticipate how the particular circumstances Staller chose will give extra resonance to Shaw’s final scene.
But ultimately, the play remains the thing here – and Shaw’s extraordinary ability to share his philosophical viewpoints on England’s class system, the dangers of capitalism, and the difference in how men and women view the world while still crafting a deeply involving story about the foibles and virtues of an eccentric family comes through as loud as any wartime bomb. (The play is considered the most Chekhovian of Shaw’s works, and echoes of the Russian master abound.)
The three-act work (presented here with one intermission) takes place in the British country house shared by Captain Shotover, a retired sea captain who is both wise and slightly wacky (portrayed in a rather understated fashion by Raphael Nash Thompson), his eldest daughter, the bohemian Hesione Hushabye (Karen Ziemba, exhibiting strength and softness in equal measure) and her husband Hector (a superb Tom Hewitt), who spends his days inventing tall tales, seducing other women and staving off the boredom of being an essentially kept man.
Converging on their house in the same weekend is Hesione’s snooty sister Ariadne (a slightly exaggerated but utterly delicious Alison Fraser), who has spent many years living in Australia with her rich husband; Ariadne’s foppish brother-in-law Randall Utterword (Hiller); Hesione’s new friend Ellie Dunn (a spectacular Kimberly Immanuel), a seemingly unworldly young woman; Ellie’s salt-of-the earth father Mazzini (a very fine Lenny Wolpe); and the seemingly hard-edged Boss Mangan (an excellent Derek Smith), Mazzini’s former business partner and Ellie’s much older fiancé.
By the play’s end, Shaw has stripped every one of these characters’ outer trappings (one almost literally) to reveal their complex and often surprising inner natures, resulting in a multi-dimensional portrait of human nature in all its colors. It’s a potent reminder not to judge people solely by their clothes and manners, books by their proverbial covers or plays by their re-conceived settings!