'Heartbreak House' Review: Reviving Shaw's 'Useless Futile Creatures'

Karen Ziemba, Tom Hewitt and Alison Fraser

Karen Ziemba, Tom Hewitt and Alison Fraser


Carol Rosegg

New York

David Staller is best known as the artistic director of Project Shaw, a series of semistaged concert readings of the 60-odd plays of George Bernard Shaw that he has presented monthly in Manhattan since 2006. But he has also directed fully staged off-Broadway versions of several Shaw plays, including the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2012 revival of “Man and Superman” and a 2016 production of “Widower’s Houses” mounted in collaboration with the now-defunct, lamented TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, both of which were not merely excellent but exceptionally memorable. Now Mr. Staller has taken on “Heartbreak House,” one of Shaw’s most challenging plays, with altogether extraordinary results.

Heartbreak House

Gingold Theatrical Group, Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St.
$69, 212-239-6200, closes Sept. 29

“Heartbreak House” was long one of Shaw’s least popular plays, mainly because of its verbosity (the 1920 premiere ran for more than four hours). Since it went out of copyright, though, it’s come to be staged more often in the U.S., in part because, like “Hamlet,” it can now be cut to a manageable length. This also allows directors to put a personal spin on Shaw’s acid portrait of the Shotovers, a family of haute-bourgeoisie eccentrics whose members, for all their charm, are (as one of them puts it) “useless futile creatures” who decline to do anything to fix the corrupt, unjust Vicwardian society in which they live. Instead, they look on placidly at the German planes that bomb their country villa at play’s end, all but cheering as their cozy world is pulverized.

Unlike the other “Heartbreak Houses” that I’ve reviewed, all of which were essentially traditional in approach, this version, which runs for a coruscating two hours and 40 minutes, is a conceptual staging, one whose ingenious framing device intensifies the effect of Shaw’s text instead of smothering it. Inspired by a wartime performance of the play in which Hermione Gingold took part during the London Blitz of 1940, it is set in a theater basement that has been lined with sandbags and turned into an air-raid shelter. As the sirens howl, the occupants of the theater take cover, and the actors who had been performing upstairs now entertain their captive audience by improvising a version of “Heartbreak House” using the props stored in the shelter.

Doing “Heartbreak House” in this way requires a perfectly believable set, and Brian Prather and Toby Algya, the scenic and sound designers, deliver the goods, turning the Lion Theatre into an exact replica of a cluttered London bomb shelter. It also helps to have a high-quality ensemble cast, and Mr. Staller has put together a team of eight actors led by Karen Ziemba, most of them veterans of the New York stage, who convincingly suggest the different kinds of acting styles you’d have expected to see in London in 1940 (with Alison Fraser giving a naughty nod to Gingold herself). The most original performance is that of Derek Smith, who is cast as Boss Mangan, an industrialist whose life is turned inside out when he pays a visit to Heartbreak House. He plays Mangan not as a wealthy boor but as a puzzled, preoccupied man of sharp intelligence who can’t understand why so peculiar a family should be getting the best of him.

It is, however, Mr. Staller’s direction that gives wing to the show. The scale is very small—the Lion Theatre has only 88 seats—and the theatrical effects mostly subtle, as befits a director who has put together so many staged readings of Shaw’s plays on a budgetary shoestring. But every gesture lands with the utmost potency, and the climactic convulsion that is the play’s final scene sweeps away the bubbly comedy and leaves you, as Shaw intended, in shock.

It isn’t hard to see why so savage a satire of the ineffectuality of old-fashioned liberalism would appeal so powerfully to latter-day directors. Yet Mr. Staller wisely declines to draw explicit political parallels of any kind. The only hint that he might possibly have the present moment in mind is a copy of an actual morale-building poster from World War II that is discreetly hung at the entrance to the shelter: “Freedom Is in Peril / Defend It With All Your Might.” The rest is left to you to figure out. For as Mr. Staller knows well, the trick to bringing “Heartbreak House” to life is to keep firmly in mind that it is a quicksilver drawing-room farce—but one with a shatteringly dark ending. Indeed, his revised and abridged version of the play, trimmed with gratifying skill, points up the similarities between Shaw’s play and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (as well as the way in which Shaw foresaw Noël Coward’s domestic comedies of bad manners).

Mr. Staller has given us a uniquely satisfying production of this great but hard-to-stage play, one that ranks alongside Eric Tucker’s 2012 Bedlam revival of “Saint Joan” as one of the two finest Shaw stagings of the past decade. Do not miss it.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author, most recently, of “Billy and Me.” Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.