Twentieth-century Irish literary lion George Bernard Shaw, famed for his intellect, wit and prickly philosophy in such theatrical landmarks as Arms and the Man, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Caesar and Cleopatra, Saint Joan, Major Barbara and Pygmalion, among many others, is the only writer to receive both the Nobel Prize for Literature and an Academy Award. A dizzy double mix of highbrow art and lowbrow entertainment is the benchmark of Shaw's style. "Though my trade is that of a playwright," he once wrote, "my vocation is that of a prophet."
For all his early acclaim as a brilliant music critic, political pamphleteer and ardent supporter of the earthshaking new drama coming out of Russia and Scandinavia (Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen), Shaw quickly realized that the playhouse would be his ideal pulpit. He scandalized proper Edwardian society by populating the stage with strange, fresh characters who spouted Shaw's own form of blasphemous, fanciful ideas about socialism, amorality, women's freedom and political anarchy. It was as potent a combination then as now.
Once fashionably derided, the great works of G.B. Shaw (he detested the name George, his father's name) are now loved for the very qualities that so mercilessly shredded the upper crust: coruscating irony, plummy talk and Brave New World idealism. One of Shaw's most accessible plays, Heartbreak House (1919), has all that and then some, and Company OnStage's radiant production is a Shavian dream come true.
In lesser hands, this "fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes," as he called it, could easily sour and turn horribly arch -- like Woody Allen doing Bergman -- but director Marianne Lyon's pedigreed stable of thoroughbred actors prances through Shaw's convoluted, silky dialogue as if on dress parade. Given Company OnStage's meager resources, it's all the more remarkable that it pulls off this demanding, comically sad play with such panache. The costumes by Patti Lindloff -- all Edwardian velvet, paisley and tassels -- are handsomely realized and add a distinct layer to Shaw's major theme of superficiality.
Curmudgeonly but rational octogenarian Captain Shotover (Carl Masterson at his blustery best), a grizzled old salt who sits in his ship-inspired study and dreams up inventions for blowing up the world, shares his house with his siren of a daughter Hesione (a splendid Bonnie Hewett); her philandering husband Hector, whose romantic notions have him dressed like Lawrence of Arabia (Tom Eschbacher); and the low-comedy English maid who never listens to her master (Anita Samson). Into this ultra-bohemian household comes the seemingly innocent young Ellie Dunn (Renata Santoro). Hesione has invited her with the purpose of talking her out of marrying old industrial tycoon Boss Mangan (Dean Turner), whom she does not love. "If I can't have love, that's no reason why I should have poverty," Ellie says sensibly.
But Ellie confesses she's in love with a handsome stranger she's just met in London, who -- shades of Oscar Wilde -- immediately enters the scene. Hector reveals that he's her best friend's husband and that all the tales of adventure and derring-do he's told Ellie were lies. Heartbreak No. 1. Content in a passionless marriage, Hesione comforts Ellie as best she can, but Ellie -- one of those modern, new women -- is set on marrying the tycoon. She knows exactly what she wants: the same as Hesione, only with scads of money.
Soon the stage is arrayed with a panoply of outrageous characters who basically do nothing in life, but say it beautifully. Heartbreaks come fast, furious and funny. Beautiful Lady Utterword (Elizabeth Marshall), Shotover's spoiled wayward daughter he hasn't seen in 23 years, is soon followed by her doting platonic lover Randall (James Reed), then Ellie's good-hearted father Mazzini (John Kaiser), Ellie's fianc Boss Mangan and, finally, an enterprising burglar (James Huggins), who allows himself to get caught in the act so he can prey upon the sympathies of his victims by taking up a collection to get him a decent job as a locksmith.
All of them want something they can't have, or pose as someone they're not. They won't "grab the devil by the tail and pull hard," as Hesione wisely acknowledges. These idlers, the very class that runs England, haven't a clue how to steer the ship of state. "Navigate," Shotover roars, "learn it and live; or leave it and be damned." But the ne'er-do-wells are impotent, Shaw emphatically implies. Out of the night sky, an enemy airship bombs the surrounding countryside. The inhabitants of Heartbreak House stand transfixed. Even facing imminent destruction, they wait and do nothing, as if welcoming their own demise. It's Shaw at his most prescient.
Written during the devastation of World War I, which saw the annihilation of England's best and brightest, Heartbreak House was withheld by the playwright for theatrical production because he knew his pacifist views would taint the response. For Shaw, those responsible for the horror were "very charming, unprejudiced, frank, humane, democratic, free-thinking and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people." And yet, the horror happened. Sound familiar? Are you laughing?
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