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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the American Airlines Theatre, New York

By Bill Stevenson

  Philip Bosco (left), Swoosie Kurtz (Photo/Joan Marcus, 2006)

George Bernard Shaw's 1917 portrait of the complacent English idle class is a challenging play-for contemporary audiences and actors alike. The articulate, verbose characters converse in lengthy sentences that are often combined into lengthy speeches. In short, Heartbreak House is the kind of play best appreciated when one has not consumed a few glasses of red wine.

The expository opening scenes find Shaw at his most Chekhovian, and director Robin Lefevre's pacing is at times too leisurely. But the Roundabout's solid, safe production becomes steadily more absorbing as the first-rate actors sink their teeth into the colorfully eccentric roles. Like all of Shaw's plays, Heartbreak House is filled with ideas; here he considers marriage, personal responsibility, youth versus old age, rich versus poor, conventional lives versus bohemian ones, and the need for strong government (particularly in wartime). But what stuck in my mind after seeing this staging was how vivid the characters are and how ideally these actors are suited to them.

Philip Bosco makes a wonderfully jaded, cantankerous Captain Shotover, the 88-year-old inventor who presides over his family's shiplike Sussex house. Playing his bohemian daughter, Hesione Hushabye, is the marvelous Swoosie Kurtz, while Laila Robins is perfect as his more straitlaced daughter, Ariadne Utterwood, who returns home after 23 years. Respectable though she claims to be, Ariadne flirts shamelessly with Hesione's dashing ladykiller husband, Hector, played to the charming hilt by Byron Jennings. Also smitten with Hector is young Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe), who is to marry the wealthy Boss Mangan (Bill Camp) to rescue her impoverished father (John Christopher Jones). Rabe impressively holds her own with her veteran costars, giving a fiery, fiercely intelligent performance that establishes her as one of our best young actresses. In smaller roles, Jenny Sterlin is amusing as the family servant, and Gareth Saxe is aptly ineffectual as Ariadne's brother-in-law Randall.

Perhaps the actors drew inspiration from Jane Greenwood's elegant costumes, which suit both the period and the characters (though the dress Hesione wears in the first half looks like it was fashioned from drapes). And John Lee Beatty's handsome set is as sturdy as the rest of the production. Shotover's country home, which resembles the ships he captained in his youth, is a metaphor for England adrift during World War I. The bombs that arrive in the final scene were meant to jolt aristocratic audiences out of their complacency. Almost 90 years after it was written, Heartbreak House still has the power to make comfortable theatergoers think. Despite being a tad too languorous early on, the Roundabout's expertly cast production does justice to Shaw's wise and prophetic play. 




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