Sunday, September 09, 2018

Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw's play Heartbreak House has been compared to the works of Chekhov. He himself hinted at the connection via the play's subtitle:  A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. It is apt that the Gingold Theatrical Group's production of Heartbreak House does not use this subtitle, since David Staller has directed it in the manner of Oscar Wilde rather than Anton Chekhov. 

This is, I think, a legitimate interpretation in some ways. Shaw certainly included some distinctly Wildean lines, such as "The natural term of the affection of the human animal for its offspring is six years" and "[He] has been fighting for freedom in his quiet way ever since. That's why he is so poor." The plot too has some farcical twists and turns that lend themselves to a Wilde idea. [spoilers] A daughter comes homes after years away; her father doesn't recognize her; a young woman wants to marry a man for his money, but he doesn't have any; she falls in love with a different, charming man who turns out to be her hostess's husband; the hostess's father mistakes a current guest for someone he knew decades ago, who obligingly shows up in act II; and so on. [end of spoilers]

Karen Ziemba, Alison Fraser, Tom Hewitt
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Unfortunately, this approach makes the show thin and silly, with little in the way of guts or hearts. By focusing on the Wildean aspects, Staller ignores the Shavian/Chekhovian aspects that could/would add up to a stinging critique of humans, our inability to stay out of war, and the idiocy of our romantic lives. Staller, who also adapted the script for this production, tries to reinflate the play by presenting it as a play within a play being performed by people in a WWII bomb shelter. Since the performers are at risk of being killed at any second, the play gains texture and a touch of suspense, but Staller does little with them. (I must admit, however, that I did have tears in my eyes when the show ended.)

The performers are uneven and seem to be in different plays--none of which is necessarily Heartbreak House. Alison Fraser is wonderful as Lady Utterword, spewing out her dialogue in an endless nasal torrent that would be perfect for a Wilde play. How well her performance fits this play is an open question, but I loved it. Jeff Hiller, in four roles, also overacts his head off; his accents are uneven, his line readings are sometimes odd, he too is probably in the wrong play, but damn, he's fun. The rest of the performers give less farcical performances, with more or less success. 

The set design, by Brian Prather, is handsome. The costumes are uneven; for example, Fraser's dresses are perfect for her character, while Karen Ziemba's dress in the first act is both awful and distracting. The other production values are solid.

It seems churlish to complain, since I did have a good time, but I don't feel that I saw Heartbreak House. Instead, it was a professional, polished simulacrum.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 75

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