Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

We’re so accustomed to thinking of Shaw as an intellectual’s intellectual that it’s a bit of a shock to imagine him actually meaning the first word of the title “Heartbreak House.” Somehow, satirical overstatement seems likelier for an author who was forever sniping at the cultured, leisured class—the folks he depicts here in the bustling home of a retired ship’s captain. His preface takes the idle rich to task for letting World War I happen, and if you intuit a whiff of sharpness in the title’s seeming resignation—the heartbreak of knowing the ship of state is manned by nincompoops—you’re not wrong. That interpretation works—has worked well, in fact, in the eight-decades-plus since the play was written.

So it’s something of a revelation when director Nick Olcott takes the old socialist more literally and places emotion front and center. Who knew Shavian characters could be so down-to-earth? If you’re accustomed to seeing them inhale sharply before pontificating so as not to run out of breath midparagraph, and coming across as walking position papers (they might as well be wearing T-shirts emblazoned “capitalist,” “bohemian,” “militarist” and so on), the folks who’ve commandeered the Round House Theatre’s Bethesda stage will surprise you. With one glaring exception (about which more later), they’re persuasively three-dimensional, driven as much by situation as by ideology. If they weren’t sporting an array of ersatz British and mid-Atlantic accents, they’d sound remarkably like the characters in a screwball Kaufman & Hart comedy.

Olcott says in his program notes that when he sat down and described the plot, a friend told him it sounded like “You Can’t Take It With You with a Ph.D.” And that comment just about captures the mood he’s established on stage—anarchic comic comings and goings, individuality run rampant, everyone self-obsessed but living in the sort of household where self-obsession somehow adds up to family. The names are as label-like as the ones in a comedy of manners—Captain Shotover, Lady Utterword, Hesione Hushabye—but the folks on stage are recognizably human.

We’re more used to the caricatures. Captain Shotover is often depicted as a senile old bat who thinks he’s still aboard ship. I’ve seen productions in which his writing desk is placed atop a staircase in a mock crow’s nest, or a ship’s wheel is situated prominently in the living room so he can stand at it bellowing his lines. Designer James Kronzer takes a more restrained approach, dotting the stage’s rich wood shelving with souvenirs of the sailor’s travels but otherwise allowing the house to be a house. And Emery Battis’ spirited Shotover is similarly understated—simply a tad forgetful, not slipping off the poop deck. He is admittedly stubborn: Once he gets an idea in his head—say, that a spunky visitor to his household named Ellie Dunn (Megan Anderson) must be the daughter of a scurrilous seaman he once commanded—no amount of contradiction by her, or even by her sweetly ineffectual father (Michael Tolaydo), can dissuade him. But Battis makes it clear that while the captain has lost command of his bridge, he is fully in command of his faculties. Listen closely to his non sequiturs and ramblings and you realize he’s always talking sense.

For nonsense, you need to listen to his daughters. Hesione (Jane Beard) sounds perfectly logical in her aggressively bohemian way, explaining away the casual lies of her amusingly overstimulated husband (Marty Lodge), riding herd over the household’s amiably patronizing nurse (June Hansen), and urging Ellie not to marry for money. But confident and sensible as she appears, Beard’s Hesione is forever making a mess of things, misjudging situations until well after she’s waded into them uninvited and has no recourse but to wade back out with a dismissive wave of her hand and a faraway glance. Her flibbertigibbet, long-absent sister, Ariadne (Kathryn Kelley), takes the opposite approach, plunging into every conversation as if it were crucial to her very existence and becoming deeply (albeit only momentarily) wounded when she is not accorded the respect to which she feels entitled. The wounds clearly stem from childhood in Kelley’s portrayal. She overlays the character’s come-hither flirting with the neediness of a neglected sibling—and manages to be quite touching while fending off the advances she keeps inviting from her brothers-in-law (Lodge and a goofily pouting John Lescault).

I mentioned an exception to the three-dimensionality, and, alas, it’s a crucial one: Gerry Bamman, who plays venture capitalist Alfred “Boss” Mangan—whose presence allows Shaw to upset a variety of social and political apple carts, and whose surprise at his own romantic heartbreak ought to provide this staging with a rich emotional center—doesn’t remotely inhabit his character, nor even turn him into a coherent cartoon. Mangan’s supposed to be an outsider to the household and the idle aristocracy it represents, but, at least by this production’s conceit, he’s still supposed to be human; as Bamman sneers and gesticulates, he only occasionally suggests there’s a man inside the stiffly appropriate suit Rosemary Pardee has provided. (The costumer’s work is, as always, exceptional throughout.) With a vacuum where the play’s catalyst should be, there’s bound to be trouble, and the rest of the cast sometimes struggles to sustain scenes in which Mangan is central.

Fortunately, there’s a lot going on around him, and it’s whipped into an effective froth by Olcott’s staging at Round House. The design elements are elegant: Kronzer’s found a nifty way to pull the audience through the French doors at the rear of the setting and plunk the action down outside, all without a turntable, and Adam Magazine’s lighting not only makes that shift, but also, in concert with Ryan Rumery’s sound design, manages to suggest a light bulb brightening above the heads of characters when they arrive at sudden revelations. Shaw gives them plenty of intellectual ones, and Olcott matches them with emotional breakthroughs that make the evening as engaging as its arguments are invigorating. CP