The place called “Heartbreak House” in George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 play of the same name is a Sussex estate owned by Captain Shotover, an eccentric old seafaring man who’s invented such useful items as a ship with a magnetic hull that pulls in submarines. But it may as well be the New York home of the bohemian Sycamore family, from Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. Or the enchanted Athenian woods in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or the forest of Arden in As You Like It. Like all of those pieces of imaginative real estate, Heartbreak House is a privileged zone where rules are suspended, lovers are switched, pecking orders are reversed, and—strangest of all—people suddenly find themselves telling the truth.
It’s also, at least allegorically, England. Shaw populated Captain Shotover’s magical garden of frankness with a small assortment of cultural types who have the most marvelous conversations while acting out the dynamics of what Shaw saw as a nation on the brink.
We meet superintelligent, intensely pragmatic Ellie Dunn and her father, Mazzini, a poor but upright would-be businessman named after Italian revolutionary Giuseppi Mazzini. Ellie is informally promised to aging industrialist Boss Mangan, but Mangan’s got a crush on Shotover’s daughter Hesione, a serial enthusiast, even though she’s already married to Hector Hushaby, a serial liar. Not that marriage is much of an impediment to romance where the Stopover clan is concerned. Hesione is too compulsively empathic to reject Mangan, and handsome, improvident Hector habitually woos attractive young ladies like Ellie with his extravagant fictions. Not to be outdone, Hesione’s sister, Ariadne, shows up, followed closely by her love-besotted puppy dog of a brother-in-law, Randall. There’s an interlude involving a burglar, too.
The captain, meanwhile, takes aphoristic potshots at everybody even as he goes on about his attempt to reach the esoteric-sounding “seventh level of concentration.” Shaw was 60 when he started writing Heartbreak House, and this ancient mariner comes across as his proxy in the proceedings.
His primary proxy, anyway. Although Shaw was doing his best imitation of Chekhovian naturalism here, he didn’t moderate his usual didacticism. It would take—probably has taken—a master’s thesis to properly diagram the political architecture of this particular day in the British countryside. But some of the antagonisms that jump out have to do with rich vs. poor, women vs. men, young vs. old, propriety vs. decadence, innovation vs. exploitation, and the spirit vs. materialism.
And this being Shaw, each set of antitheses doubles back and twists around itself in the most exquisite ways. Mangan, for instance, admits to having ruined Mazzini’s business while pretending to save it, in order to pick it up cheap. His job isn’t to do the hard work of realizing an idea, he says, but to step in and run things once some fool—e.g., Mazzini—has done that for him. Still, Mazzini doesn’t resent Mangan. So-called bosses don’t really run anything, Mazzini asserts with a cheerful smile—they’re too afraid of the workers and don’t understand the machines. It’s the managers who make it all go. And yet the Mangans of the world have their uses: their obsessive miserliness and want to feeling keeps spending down. As for why Ellie is willing to marry Mangan, that’s another set of twists.
Shaw wrote Heartbreak House with the cataclysm of World War I in mind. He was vehemently opposed to it, and the play develops a kind of exuberant fatalism—a cheery sense of doom—as it progresses. William Brown has set his Writers’ Theatre production in 1940, at the beginning of World War II. It’s a bad idea, even though the sense of doom still applies, because the update distances Shaw’s script from the zeitgeist that created it—and the zeitgeist is practically one of the family in this play. Captain Shotover’s mysticism satirizes the fad for occultism that was big among the English intelligentsia around the turn of the century. Mazzini has a speech about his youthful activism that only makes sense if he had a late-Victorian—as opposed to Depression-era—youth. Tidbits like these lose their flavor if you mess with the time frame. As far as I can see, the only benefit to be gained from the change is that a Messerschmitt sounds scarier than a Zeppelin when it’s flying overhead.
Still, Brown’s move is pretty much a victimless crime. The period problems are far from unforgivable, and the production is wonderfully fluid, fluent, and funny overall. Atra Asdou’s Ellie Dunn lacks a necessary fire, but she’s surrounded by a vivid ensemble. Martin Yurek seems constantly aghast at himself as Hector the fabulist. John Lister is a hoot as Boss Mangan, slowly disintegrating as the honesty in the air makes it harder and harder for him to breathe. And John Reeger is positively august as Captain Shotover. Amused, cantankerous, sly, and frankly self-aware, Reeger’s Shotover is the very soul of Heartbreak House.