August 28, 2018 - September 29, 2018
THEATRE ROW- THE LION THEATRE
410 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036
In this new adaptation of Shaw’s infamous WWI play, it’s the first days of the London Blitz of September 1940. With the performance interrupted, the cast and audience have joined together to seek shelter in the theatre’s basement. To entertain the crowd, the cast performs Shaw’s most vital paean to resistance and perseverance against tyranny, Heartbreak House. Inspired by actual events as lived by Hermione Gingold during WWII’s darkest days, this revelatory approach will make Shaw’s masterpiece more timely than ever.
Heartbreak House, which Shaw began at the beginning of WWI but which was first performed by New York’s famed Theatre Guild in 1920, brings a wildly disparate group of people together in the English countryside over a September weekend to make major decisions about their future. No stone is left unturned as each character is forced to come to terms with his or her past while finding a way to move forward in the face of the coming crisis.
After many years of struggling as a classical actress, Hermione Gingold became famous during the early days of the war in London performing satirical musical review sketches. As the bombs fell, she kept the shows going until the explosions came too close for comfort and would bring everyone below the stage for safety. To keep spirits up, she and her co-workers would entertain the group by presenting plays. The most often requested play was Shaw’s most ardent plea for us to stand up to the coming storm, Heartbreak House. Our production, inspired by our company’s name-sake, will recreate one of these lively events.
“The version of Heartbreak House we’re presenting returns us to Shaw’s original intent. He began writing it before WWI exploded, but with-held it until after the war due to the general anger at him for making speeches and writing articles to attempt to discourage the conflict. He then re-wrote the play for its debut for 1920 at NY’s Theatre Guild. The script I’ve assembled over the last two years employs his original hand-written version along with the subsequent typed manuscript, numerous letters with directives, and various production scripts he’d worked on or approved. He’d hoped to use the play as a warning, but then it was too late. Art as activism was his approach, and he had hoped to jolt the world out of its complacency. By the time the world saw the play, they were ready to forget all about war and so Shaw ended his published version as a wistful reminder of the devastation. To the best of our knowledge, this original version has never been produced.”
– director David Staller
‘Heartbreak House’ Review:
Reviving Shaw’s ‘Useless Futile Creatures’
A REVIEW FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Terry Teachout
Sept. 11, 2018 4:12 p.m. ET
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” 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 email@example.com.
Gingold Theatrical Group, Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St.
$69, 212-239-6200, closes Sept. 29
Our Remarkable Cast
Ellie Dunn … Kimberly Immanuel
Nurse Guinness … Jeff Hiller
Captain Shotover … Raphael Nash Thompson
Hesione Hushabye … Karen Ziemba
Lady Ariadne Utterword … Alison Fraser
Mazzini Dunn … Lenny Wolpe
Hector Hushabye … Tom Hewitt
Boss Mangan … Derek Smith
Randall Utterword … Jeff Hiller
The Burglar … Jeff Hiller
Our HEARTBREAK HOUSE team:
David Staller, director
Brian Prather, set designer
Barbara A. Bell, costume designer
Christina Watanabe, lighting designer
Toby Algya, sound designer
Cate DiGirolamo, production manager
Chris Clark, production stage manager
Kristy Bodall, assistant stage manager
Steve Mazzoccone, assistant to the director
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