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It’s customary to speak of Shaw’s aristocracy-lampooning Heartbreak House in the same breath with two less frothy portraits of societal collapseShakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. As in the former, a dictatorial-but-past-his-prime father grows disenchanted with daughters who don’t share his values. As in the latter, a detached, idly charming family squanders its hard-earned (by someone else) leisure time chatting as its world dissolves. The comparisons are apt. Shaw had both plays in mind as he penned his.
The author wrote Heartbreak House just as World War I was breaking Europe apart, and he meant it as an indictment of the principled but detached generation of leaders whose inaction had allowed the conflagration to start. Moral outrage is evident in every caustic link his dialogue makes between capitalism and patriotism.
Still, patrons of John MacDonald’s smart, sunny mounting of the Shaw opus at Washington Stage Guild are more likely to link it to the boisterous ’30s romp You Can’t Take It With You, with its household eccentrics, casually insolent servants, open-door policy toward uninvited guests, and climax built around exploding fireworks. Shaw’s pre-World War I Brits speak more philosophically than Kaufman & Hart’s pre-World War II Americans, but in this mounting, they’re just as apt to be naifs in matters of politics and finance, and to be reduced to stammering idiocy by love.
Take the folks who actually reside at the Sussex estate from which the play derives its title. There’s Captain Shotover (Bill Hamlin), a crackpot former naval hero who presides overbut does not rulethe household as if he were still commanding a vessel, muttering nautical maxims (“NavigationLearn it and live, or leave it and be damned”) and barking orders at servants who blithely ignore him. Genuine command is in the imperiously vague hands of his daughter Hesione (Lynn Steinmetz), whose personal laissez-faire bohemianism is actively at war with her urge to cheer everyone up by taking over everyone’s life. Also in residence is Hesione’s husband, Hector (Bill Largess), a man of genuine bravery who never talks about his actual heroism, but who makes up wildly improbable stories to impress women he doesn’t know. All three of them would be right at home in a Kaufman & Hart world of hi-jinks and low comedy.
And that’s roughly where they initially find themselves, when they’re joined one autumn afternoon by Hesione’s penniless friend Ellie (Tricia McCauley), who lusts after Hector, and Ellie’s industrialist fiancé, Boss Mangan (John Dow), who lusts after Hesione. Also by Hesione’s haughty sister Ariadne (Laura Giannarelli), who is being pursued by both a love-seeking brother-in-law (Jamie Stevens) and a jewel-seeking burglar (Scott Sophos). Rounding out the houseguests is Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Vincent Clark), who was ruined financially by Boss Mangan but is now his most loyal employee. Dunn is perhaps the only sane person on the premises; he is consequently viewed by everyone else as a helpless fool.
As in any other Shavian play, each of these folks is a mouthpiece for either the author’s point of view or a brand of politics he’s decided to refute. In this case, the old socialist’s notions of moral responsibility are lodged in Captain Shotover, who has a forceful enough personality that the others suspect he could detonate dynamite just by looking at it. Aristocratic obliviousness is the province of Hector and Hesione, and capitalistic greed that of Boss Mangan. Working-class rectitude resides in Ellie, while the burglar is the repository of penurious wisdom, and so forth.
All these relationships are clear in WSG’s staging even when physical details aren’t quite rightperformers, say, who don’t match up physically with dialogue describing their characters as dashing or glamorous. Fortunately, the company talks the talk even when it doesn’t look the look. Hamlin’s Shotover is particularly well-spoken, though he must be decades younger than everyone keeps saying he is. And once she stops the self-consciously ingénue-ish eye popping that mars her first scene, McCauley’s Ellie is a forthright Shavian heroine. Elizabeth Stripe’s sarcastic nurse is also an asset.
What the director has noted is that these folks, for all their erudite banter, are close kin to stock sitcom characterseccentric dad, rebellious daughter, officious-but-dumb boss, toadying-but-smart employeeand that they behave in predictable ways when placed in stock comic situations. Hamlin’s crusty Captain Shotover, for instance, is not just a walking treatise on the fading of the British Empirehe’s a wise old everygramps, offering sharp one-liners to visitors and waxing senile with a glint in his eye. Let Dow, as the powerful industrialist, stop talking finance long enough to notice that his life is lonely, and in no time, he’s as inarticulate as Ricky Ricardo, resorting to stunts such as removing all his clothes to get the others to pay attention to him.
Similarly, let a friend present Steinmetz’s sweetly scattered lady of the house with a romantic conundrum, and she, Lucy-like, will find the most complicated possible way to resolve it. When this household catches a thief in the act of burgling, it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll end up passing the hat for him. Dynamite?…No sooner is it mentioned than someone puts it in the one place where it’s sure to explode.
MacDonald has, in short, pictured a household that is only tangentially connected with the real world but is decently suited to the task of exposing real-world follies. It’s not the most sophisticated approach he could have taken, but in a sense, it’s an approach Shaw tacitly endorsed by holding back the play for several years before having it produceduntil the war was over, when comedy could dominate and his characters could be seen at a comfortable remove. Pacifism is a tough sell when there are war-bonds posters on every storefront. Better to let things coolespecially when your play ends with an air raid that leaves its pointedly disengaged protagonists as exhilarated as they are physically untouched. A master hectorer, Shaw knew the value of timing.
MacDonald and his company also know the value of timing, though brisk delivery can’t entirely rescue a draggy second act. Fortunately, there’s a third, and it’s a corker.CP