If nothing else, the Gingold Theatrical Group has done us a great service in producing this version of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. The play, inspired by Chekhov, was begun in 1913 and rewritten before its publication in 1919 and its premiere in 1920. Director David Staller has attempted to resurrect an earlier, darker take on the same material by collating “the original hand-written version along with the subsequent typed manuscripts, numerous letters with directives, and various production scripts.” The result is an unequivocally superior play, one that punctuates this pleasant comedy of upper-class foibles with a starker reminder of the devastation this level of wealth sows.
Unfortunately, Mr. Staller’s direction is not worthy of his editorial work. He has framed Heartbreak House as a play-within-a-play, and we the audience are all hiding out in the basement of the Ambassador Theatre during a World War II air raid. While waiting, the cast from upstairs decides to put on a play downstairs, and thus we are treated to some Shaw. It’s a bizarre decision, especially since our playwright was so clearly responding to World War I, but it is rendered arbitrary since nothing in the staging of the drama reflects this initial conceit. Except for a brief reminder at intermission in the form of a singalong, the World War II premise, even the more abstract sense of dread hanging over all these frivolities, is dropped for almost all of the near three-hour runtime. Such a strong conceptual setup, and such a weak follow-up, reeks of gimmickry. Furthermore, without a strong guiding vision, much of the action feels static, despite an abundance of hijinks.
Which is a shame, since nearly everything else about the production works. The large cast is unusually strong. Alison Fraser, in particular, is hysterical as the droll, class-obsessed wife of an imperialist governor; she aggressively trills her Rs and, when asking family members for a kiss, she places a flat, inward-facing palm against her cheek, as if she were incapable of any action so emotional as pointing. The set, too, is striking, the Union Jack draped and hung everywhere. When several characters remark that life can’t just go on, that surely an end is coming, they are voicing an apocalyptic feeling shared by many of Shaw’s contemporaries. But the ironically zealous use of flags reminds us that they aren’t wrong: some of these characters may even live to see the Suez Crisis, that final nail in the British empire’s coffin. And in this version, the ending is sublime. But rather than being allowed to sit for a few moments in the final blackout, we soon hear that there has been an “all clear” and we’re free to exit the basement. The lights are back on, and the actors are still in character. Shaw’s conclusion has not been given room to breathe. Mr. Staller may be his own worst enemy here.
Heartbreak House runs through September 29th at the Lion Theatre. 410 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 2 hours 40 minutes. One intermission.