Sandbags and British flags abound in the air raid shelter where we have gathered, in the basement of London’s Ambassador Hotel in 1940, in the midst of the Blitz of London. This is a fine setting for a morale-boosting sing-along, and indeed we are occasionally guided through such songs as “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and Smile, smile, smile,” with a handout that prints all the lyrics.
Unfortunately, that’s not the main reason we are here in the audience at a ground-floor theater in Theatre Row for nearly three hours. The bomb shelter is just the odd framing for the Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of “Heartbreak House” by George Bernard Shaw.
“Let’s do a Shaw play,” announces one of our fellow shelter inhabitants, and so a cast of veteran New York stage actors pretends to be spontaneously portraying a group of British eccentrics who gather in a villa in the English countryside on the eve of World War I.
Shaw began writing “Heartbreak House” in 1913, influenced by Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” to depict the cultured class of Great Britain as “helpless and ineffective” in the face of a forecast of apocalyptic changes. As he implies in a long, dense preface to the script published in 1919 (a year before it was first produced on stage), the individual characters in the play may experience heartbreak in one way or another, but the title reflects the playwright’s disappointment in the British citizenry as a whole.
Director David Staller is using a script of the play he adapted himself, by combing through Shaw’s various drafts, production scripts, and “numerous letters with directives” to try to restore the play to the playwright’s original intent. Staller, who is also the artistic director of the Gingold Theatrical Group, which is named after the actress Hermione Gingold, explains that the production is inspired by Gingold’s actual experience of performing “Heartbreak House” in bomb shelters during World War II. One would like to trust his judgment. The company he founded 12 year ago, after all, is besotted with George Bernard Shaw. It produces an annual Shaw festival and a monthly Shaw reading series, as well as a Shaw Club that holds regular discussions about Shaw. Above all, it boasts that it is the first company ever to perform all 65 of Shaw’s plays. Full disclosure: I reacted to the thought of attending all 65 Shaw plays with an involuntary shudder. To be fair, “Heartbreak House” is one of his five most popular plays, along with “Pygmalion,” “Major Barbara,” “Saint Joan” and “Man and Superman.” But this production, though meticulously designed and competently acted, simply doesn’t strike me as the best introduction to the play for those who have never seen it before, given its presentation of a 1914 setting through a 1940 filter. Even devoted Shavians might wonder why Gingold’s experience with the play in 1940 is enough reason to impose this framing in 2018.
There are certainly reasons why “Heartbreak House” has particular resonance these days, almost shockingly so with the character Boss Mangan (Derek Smith.) a “practical business man” who has gone into politics. He is one of the several visitors to the home of Captain Shotover (Raphael Nash Thompson), a cantankerous oddball inventor and retired sailor, who lives with his daughter Hesione Hushabye (Karen Ziemba), and her husband, the dashing and adulterous Hector Hushabye (Tom Hewitt.) The snobbish Lady Utterwood (Alison Fraser) also pays a visit, but the Captain doesn’t recognize her, even though she is his other daughter, long absent from what she considered a disreputable home. Also visiting are Ellie Dunn (Kimberley Immanuel), the sweet but savvy daughter of a goodly father Mazzini Dunn (Lenny Wolpe.) Completing the roster are the sassy maid Guinness, Lady Utterwood’s lustful brother-in-law Randall, and a burglar (all three portrayed in cartoonish fashion by Jeff Hiller.) Their connections with one another are complicated, convoluted, often scandalous, and the fuel for Shaw’s comedy, his witticisms and his pointed observations (both explicit and implicit) about the frivolity of English society, the beastliness of businessmen, the superiority of women, artifice of marriage, and the country’s changing mores: “At one point, the Captain says to Ellie: “I see my daughters and their men living foolish lives of romance and sentiment and snobbery. I see you, the younger generation, turning from their romance and sentiment and snobbery to money and comfort and hard common sense.”
When the play ends with a literal bang, we’re meant to see how foolish and unprepared the whole lot of them are for the world as it is. But even before that, most of the characters are revealed to be the opposite of what they at first appeared to be. Mangan, whom Ellie was planning to marry for his money, turns out not to have any. His factories “belong to syndicates and shareholders. I don’t own anything.”
Lady Utterword asks him: “Do you expect to save the country, Mr Mangan?”
“Well,” he replies, “who else will?”
Ellie says: “There seems to be nothing real in the world except my father and Shakespeare
Think of the powers of destruction that Mangan and his mutual admiration gang wield! It’s madness: it’s like giving a torpedo to a badly brought up child to play with.”
Gingold Group at Theatre Row
Written by George Bernard Shaw; Adapted and directed by David Staller
Set design by Brian Prather, costume design by Barbara A. Bell, lighting design by Christine Watanabe, sound design by Toby Algya
Cast Alison Fraser, Tom Hewitt, Jeff Hiller, Kimberly Immanuel, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Lenny Wolpe, and Karen Ziemba
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including intermission
Heartbreak House is on stage through