Fiddling While the Abyss Looms Review

HeartbreakH ouse- Theater- Review – New York Times Page1 of4
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British Gentry, Fiddling While the Abyss Looms
The time will soon be ripe for fresh political leadership. With a presidential election just a
coupleo f yearsa way,w e needt o start looking for viable new candidates,f ellowsw ith those
outside-the-Beltwayv iews voters are said to cherish.
I’d like to suggest he American electoratec onsidert he merits of CaptainS hotover,t he
straight-talking old salt currently and eternally presiding over “Heartbreak House,” Geofge
Bernar<l,Sha1gc’osm edya bout British gentry waltzingt oward the apocal)’pse.
Qualifications?H e has military experiencea nd fresh ideas.A nd he’s not beholdent o big
business types, whom he colorfully refers to as “those hogs to whom the universe is nothing but
a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts.” Which reminds me: He already
has a crack speechwriter on staff.
True, the candidate has a few glaring liabilities. The rumors about his alcohol consumption are
well founded. But there’s always rehab. The attention span is a little short, but is that such a
problem in politics thesed ays?O f courseh e’sa fictional charactert oo. Consideredf rom all
angles,t hough, that may not be a drawback.I maginary peoplec an’t sendi nstant messages.
As brought to fine, irascible life by Philip Bqsco in this rippingly good revival that opened last
night at the American Airlines Theater, the captain has a crusty charm that surely cuts across
all demographicsT. he man talks such good senset hat you might not notice that a major plank
in his platform is blowing up the human race. Shotover aside, the time seems unusually ripe for
“Heartbreak House,” perhaps Shaw’s richest and saddest play about the follies of humaniV, as
rehearsedb y the British upper classesin the shiveryd aysb efore World War I. In this quasi-
Chekhovian comedy set at a country house slightly unmoored from the real world, Shaw
indicted a culture saturated in false values, its most privileged citizens corrupted by idleness
and indifference, content to drift toward the abyss.
With the world seemingly on endless edge these days, and with plenty of Americans feeling
disengagedfr om the circus of our cultural and political discourse,S haw’sb racing analysiso f a l2ltheater/reviews/12hous.html?pagewanted:print I112812007
HeartbreakH ouse- Theater- Review – New York Times Page2o f 4
civilization in decline seems more valuable than ever.
Valuable too is the care taken by the Roundabout Theater Company and the production’s
director, Robin Lefewe, to see that Shaw’s words are entrusted to actors able to transform his
dense streams of talk into melodious music. This occurs with gratifiring ease in this felicitously
cast production, devoid of television or movie names on the upward or downward arc of their
Mr. Bosco alone has almost a dozen major Shaw productions on his r6sum6, including the last
Broadway revival of “Heartbreak House,” in 1983, in which he played the battered capitalist
BossM angan.I f none of the other seasoneda ctorsh ere can match that impressivet ally, they
all possessth e gifts neededt o breathel ife into Shaw’se xtravagantlyc omic but still human
characters,m en and women with eloquentt onguesa nd ever-readyo pinions who alsoh ave
hearts capable of breaking and souls worth saving.
The soul in most immediate need of saving belongs to Ellie Dunn, played with a soft radiance
and flashes of fire by Lily Rabe, who is fast becoming an invaluable asset to the New York stage.
Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) has invited the good but penniless Ellie for a weekend in
the country. Hesione is determined to prevent Ellie from giving her heart and hand to the
boorish but rich businessman Boss Mangan (Bill Camp). The plot dizzily turns on this
seemingly unmomentous question: Will Ellie marry for money?
Her sentimental education does not proceed smoothly. Hesione’s plan to sell her on the joys of
true love is fouled almost instantly when Ellie learns that the dashing, mysterious figure who
has set her heart aflutter is none other than Hesione’s husband, Hector (Byron Jennings).
Enter heartbreak and disillusionment. Vowing to proceed with her marriage to Mangan, Ellie
concludes,’I f I can’t have love, that’s no reasonw hy I should havep overty.”
Heartache and disillusionment are easier to obtain than a proper tea in the mad household
presided over by Hesione and her father, Captain Shotover. Hector is bewitched and bothered
by the arrival of Hesione’s fanatically genteel sister, Ariadne (Laila Robins). Boss Mangan is
not only hypnotized by his fianc6e but also by Hesione, who toys with him like a cat teasing a
trapped mouse. Only Captain Shotover, who barges through the farcical fumblings like a ship
cutting through rough waters, and Ellie’s father, the pragmatic failed businessman Mazzini
Dunn (a hilariously distractedJ ohn ChristopherJ ones),e scapeth e romantic spell that haunts
the house.
But not even they can ignore the darker shadows that loom across its imposing, pseudonauticalf
acade( renderedw ith unnecessaryh eavinessb y John Lee Beatty).T he charactersin 12ltheater/reviews/12hous.html?pagewanted:print 1112812007
HeartbreakH ouse- Theater- Review – New York Times Page3 of4
“Heartbreak House” flirt and pose and trade acid aperqus about manners and morals, but they
are hunted, furtive figures too, uneasily aware of the world’s ugliness and their idle
complicity in the pervasive moral darkness.
Grim, proto-existentialist reflections strike discordant notes in the sparkling ribbons of talk, as
when Hesionec onfessesto Ellie, “I am just wonderingh ow much longer I can stand living in
this cruel, damnable world.”
Swathed columns of silk (the rich costumes are by Jane Greenwood), Ms. Kurtz transmits the
wearinessb eneathH esione’sr omantic swaggerw ithout blunting her wit. This expertc omic
actress may not fit the textbook definition of “siren,” as Hesione is called, but she may just be
the most seductive woman on a New York stage right now.
Unlesst hat nod goest o Ms. Robins,w ho locatest he essenceo f her character’ss hallowa llure in
a languid,liquid strut and a smile both entrancing and devouring.
As Hector, Mr. Jennings is not a natural lady-killer, but he fakes it well. Boss Mangan
occasionallys eemst o be performing in a one-manm elodramao f his or.tnd evising,b ut Mr.
Campc ertainly conveyst he character’ss hell shock.O f Mr. Boscot he most and leastt hat can be
said is that he is sublime as Shotover, a man of spent passions with just enough energy left to
take a fervent interest in Ellie’s fate.
Shaw’sc omediesc hampion the power of reasonf ired by passionatef eeling.T hey are
themselvesd ocumentst hat arguef or intelligent discoursea s a meanso f amelioratingt he
ignorance and stupidity of the world. But in “Heartbreak House” pessimism trumps sagacity,
as Shaws eemst o throw up his hands in despair.I n the peculiarl ast scenet he exhaustedm en
and women greet the arrival of bombs as if they were lovely fireworks, or a burst of Beethoven,
to borrow Hesione’s macabre metaphor.
It’s an unsettling and dispiriting image:w ell-groomedh umanity greetingi ts ornmd estruction
with an inviting smile. Shaws urely meant it to shockh is countrymeni nto an awarenesso f the
possiblyd ire consequenceos f a continued political and moral paralysis.
As transmitted in this fine production, it still sends a shiver down the spine. Almost a century
after it was written, “Heartbreak House” provides a keen comic rebuke to cynicism, selfindulgencea
nd detachment,t hose all too easyr esponsesto the bitternesso f the world, which is
still too cruel after all. and surelv as damnable as ever.
HeartbreakH ouse- Theater- Review – New York Times Page4 of4
By George Bernard$lraw; directed by Robin Lefevre; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by
Jane Greenwood;l ighting by Peter Kaczorowski;o riginal music and soundb y John Gromada;
production stagem anager,L eslieC . Lyter; generalm anager,S ydneyB eers;a ssociatea rtistic
director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic
director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Lery, executive director. At the the
American Airlines Theater, zz7 West 4znd Street, Manhattan, (ztz) 7rg-r3oo. Through Dec.
ro. Running time: 2 hours, 4o minutes.
WITH: Philip_Bosco(C aptainS hotover),S wBqsieK urtz (HesioneH ushabye),B yron Jennings
(Hector Hushabye), LilfRebe (Ellie Dunn), Laila Robins (Ariadne Utterword), Bill Camp (Boss
Mangan), John Christopher Jones (Mazzini Dunn), Gareth Saxe (Randall Utterword) and
Jenny Sterlin (Nurse Guinness).
Copyrigb2t0 06T heN ewY orkT imesC oqpany
f t l v a q y f o l i c yl s e a r e h lCo q e c t i o n sI n s s l l t r r , t r n t l u e l r lCa n t a c t u s l Wo rK&rUs lSi t eMa p l2ltheater/reviews/l2hous.html?pagewanted:print 1112812007

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