Staging Shaw well is never straightforward, and doing right by “Heartbreak House,” the playwright’s indictment of the complacent leisure class he felt was driving Europe toward its ruin, is especially tricky. The 1917 play starts as a comedy of manners that flirts with farce before lurching into a darker mode of despair cloaked in loopy cynicism. Even thematically, it’s hard to pin down, ruminating on marriage and morality, class and respectability, business and politics, self-reliance and providence. So it’s a pleasant surprise that director Robin Lefevre and a sparkling ensemble tame the unruly material into a sound, stimulating production.
Shaw’s plays are more works of discussion than conclusion. That said, if there’s a moment that comes close to revealing the essence of this rambunctious enigma of a play, it arrives in the final scene. Eccentric 88-year-old inventor Captain Shotover declares the business of an Englishman is navigation: “Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned.” Greeting the impending catastrophe of World War I with an air of inevitability, Shotover recognizes the need for men to govern themselves carefully.
Played with flawless command by veteran Shavian interpreter Philip Bosco as a man both jocularly distracted and profoundly anchored, the mad captain and his pragmatic approach to life reflect Shaw’s own world-weary views. Puttering around his house in the Sussex countryside, Shotover sighs at the “foolish lives of romance and sentiment” being pursued by his family, and at the “money and comfort and hard common sense” sought by the younger generation.
The captain sees as futile the struggle to achieve happiness and hang onto it. Having spent his best years seeking danger and adventure, the soulfulness of the character is in his reluctance to abandon himself in his old age to “the happiness of yielding and dreaming instead of resisting and doing.”
Built to resemble the ship of Shotover’s seafaring days (John Lee Beatty’s set strikes an inventive balance between stately and quirky), the house functions well as a microcosm for a society without foundations and drifting.
Shaw presents his characters — the various members of the Shotover household and their visitors — as one thing before peeling away layers to reveal them as something else. One of Lefevre’s accomplishments as director is the subtle means by which he calibrates these shifts.
In Lily Rabe’s smart, seductive perf, Ellie Dunn at first seems guileless and proper, only later displaying her considerable wiles. She’s willing to marry boorish businessman Boss Mangan (Bill Camp) because he apparently saved her idealistic father, Mazzini (John Christopher Jones), from poverty.
As much an oddball as her father and similarly lacking in a politeness filter, Shotover’s manipulative daughter Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) is determined to stop Ellie from a joyless marriage. She correctly intuits the girl has deeper feelings for another man and seems not the least perturbed to discover it’s her own ladykiller husband, Hector (Byron Jennings). Also visiting are Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins), and her useless aesthete brother-in-law Randall (Gareth Saxe).
Borrowing a Chekhovian model in a play he described as “a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” Shaw allows his idle characters to banter and flirt before sounding the alarm that their poor grasp of economic and political realities has them heading for disaster. “Every drunken skipper trusts to Providence,” warns Captain Shotover. “But one of the ways of Providence with drunken skippers is to run them on the rocks.” Shaw then turns the tables in the final-scene air raid by killing off only the practical capitalist.
While Lefevre embraces the ambiguities of the play’s second and third acts (here compressed into a single act and minus the original act two’s burglar character), he could have begun coaxing out the work’s melancholy strains a little earlier. (Arguably, though, it’s Shaw who could have improved on the foreshadowing.) The production is at its most sure-footed when the characters are trading barbs and witticisms, before they turn reflective. But the director and his cast score by allowing every delicious aphorism to land gently, without hammering them.
In addition to Bosco and Rabe, there are some impressively tuned instruments in the cast. Crowned in flaming ringlets and costumed (handsome work by Jane Greenwood) like she’s about to go on in a Greek tragedy, Kurtz is hilarious as regal, unflappable Hesione, brutally blunt and with an endless appetite for mischief. Robins’ wonderfully droll Lady Utterword has all the grand gestures and airs of a woman who has distanced herself from her “horribly bohemian” family but is far less conventional than she appears.
Jones is warm and winning as Ellie’s ineffectual father, again not nearly as clueless as he seems, while Saxe is amusingly self-deprecating as infantile fop Randall and Jenny Sterlin milks wry humor out of the housekeeper role.
As the pumped-up blowhard who reveals his weakness, Camp works a touch too hard at conveying bluster first and befuddlement later, and Jennings, while always capable, seems an imperfect fit for suave lightweight Hector.
But those weaker notes are not fatal ones and this ultimately is a satisfying, impeccably designed production of a clever, complex play that’s probably easier to get wrong than right.