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Heartbreak House Is a Triumph of Manners at Main Street

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The setup:

Heartbreak House is one of the early masterpieces of Bernard Shaw - he dropped the opening name "George", though it has a life of its own, and refuses to die; Shaw is often referred to as "GBS", and the play program here retains "George". The play is rarely produced, partly because it is very complex, and partly because it is set in 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, and seems dated. It is a wonderful comedy, filled with attitudes of the deepest and most delightful cynicism - these are highly relevant today - and Main Street Theater has done us all a favor by reviving it.

The execution:

There are so many full-blown and important characters that it's fair to say the main character is the director, who marshals a horde of actors into polished performances. Here it is Rebecca Greene Udden, Executive Artistic Director of Main Street Theater, and she has found the comedy's rich humor, and the sardonic wit, and created wonderfully the impression of a large estate on the tiny stage available to her.

The estate belongs to Captain Shotover, played ably and with significant authority by Charles Krohn. It is a crucial role, and one Orson Welles - in his early 20's, aided by a white beard - played in 1938 in a production produced and directed by him. It's made clear that Shotover savors his rum, though he never seems intoxicated - it probably just helps him think more clearly. He is forgetful and we are led to think he is in his early dotage, but his views are often wise, and he fares best among the men as having his head screwed on correctly. He does, however, wish to blow up the world. The women have almost a monopoly on wisdom, as they, like skilled puppeteers, manipulate their men.

Shotover's older daughter, Hesione Hushabye, who lives on the estate, is portrayed by Celeste Roberts, in a truly magnificent performance. She commands the stage with charm, sailing through the play like a tall ship with the wind behind it. Every time she entered, my expectations rose, and they were never disappointed. She is married to Hector Hushabye, dashingly handsome, and played by Joe Kirkendall, who fits the role like a glove. It is a minor part, but Kirkendall makes the most of it, and is persuasive in his philandering.

The extra-marital courtships are taken in stride - no one points a finger in shock - and that is one of the delightful aspects of Shaw's cynicism. He makes clear that marriages are liaisons meant to achieve power, or money, and are not necessarily affairs of the heart. That can be done on the side.

One plot element is that Ellie Dunn (Joanna Hubbard) has been invited to the estate, in order for Hesione to dissuade her from marrying Boss Mangan (Jim Salners), an older man but apparently very wealthy. Salners is outstanding, and handles a truly complex role with dexterity. Ellie is marrying for security - her family is bankrupt - but is really in love with a dashingly handsome man - you guessed it - Hector Hushabye, who has been courting her under an assumed name. Ellie is naturally taken aback to discover, when Hector enters, that she has been toyed with - men!

Shotover's younger daughter fled the estate as a young woman, but now returns for the first time in decades as Lady Ariadne Utterword, married to a powerful and influential man. She is meant to be stunningly beautiful, and indeed she is, as portrayed by Elizabeth Marshall Black. It is thus largely inevitable that she will be drawn to the physical charisma of Hector, and he to her, and that they will pursue a dalliance. Lest you be shocked, and think "And in Hesione's own house!", you should know that Hesione couldn't care less.

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Ellie has arrived accompanied by Mazzini Dunn, assumed by the others to be her father, though in fact he is her uncle. Her father, Billy Dunn (Mark Roberts) does enter late, but I'm not opening the door to that subplot, for which you may be grateful. The lady next to me, at the first of the two intermissions, asked me if I understood the play, and I wickedly told her there was a chart on the back page of the program, but then had to confess my jest as she eagerly turned the program over.

Ariadne's husband is not in the play, though Ariadne had arrived with his younger brother, Randall Utterword (Joel Sandel) in tow. Randall's role in the play is primarily comic relief, as he is a sniveling wreck of a human being, prone to tears. And Sheryl Croix plays Guiness, nurse to Shotover, whose nursing job seems primarily to bring him three pint bottles of rum, and take away the empties. She also has a link to Billy Dunn.

The result of all this is a wonderful evening of entertainment. Shaw's characters all speak with an articulateness that is admirable, and unnatural, but I am the first to embrace their style of speech - would that we all had such a gift. The first two acts are filled with wit and style, and vastly amusing, as they are a comedy of manners. Or of rudeness, often the case here, but delivered with such aplomb, followed instantly by apologies and further deception, that one can't help but be captivated.

The third act is a different story. Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe famously said "Less is more" (I know, Robert Browning used it first), but Shaw has always believed that even more may not be quite enough. The third act turns into an early version of "theater of the absurd", before Pirandello and Ionesco, making Shaw a pioneer in this genre, only defined and named as such in 1960. Here Shaw elaborates on his polemicizing, but is less clear here than in his subtle satire. This act is intended to warn of coming danger, and to be a call for level heads to plan ahead and take appropriate action.

Shaw has just shown us, however, that men are dunderheads - Boss Mangan is more of a politician than a ruthless captain of industry, Ellie's uncle can't manage money, her father is a criminal (sorry, it slipped out), Shotover is an anarchist, and Hector an idler. Are these the men to lead us? Hardly. This rather clumsy third act, rather than wrapping things up, dynamites us into a different play.

But nothing can spoil the rich joy of the first two acts, wherein a witty, mischievous playwright makes serious points about human nature, and the corruption and idiocy of the upper classes. Mind you, Shaw is equally at ease skewering the downstairs staff.

Despite the deftness of the direction and the generally brilliant acting, some questions remain. Joanna Hubbard, playing Ellie, seems to be the ingénue of choice in Houston, and works all the time, on several stages. She conveys the meaning, and the narrative, of the play, but omits the charm. Ellie turns out to be the ultimate opportunist, and it is a rich, humorous role, as she outwits even Hesione. But we never see the layering of thought that Shaw provided, or the warmth required for deception.

Elizabeth Marshall Black as Ariadne gives a curiously shrill performance, as though she were a show girl rather than a lady. We see her early on as flighty, but her strength and sound judgment are revealed as the play progresses. A hint of her inner strength might have let us see more clearly Shaw's pleasure in creating this amusing role. Black has an enormous range as an actor, and can deliver whatever is wanted, so director Udden may be at fault here. Finally, in satire, the characters don't know they are figures of fun, and Joel Sanders as Randall might snivel less, so it stops short of parody.

The set design by Ryan McGettigan is excellent, and the costumes by Margaret Crowley generally appropriate, though her green dress for Ariadne contained more sequins than I suspect a Lady might wear. The lighting design by Carrie D. Cavins is good, and very effective in the switch to the Rotunda in the third act, though the center stage here remained dark when the actors stood.

Despite my few reservations, offered because Shaw is such a theatrical genius that I hate to see missed opportunities, the production is a triumph. Main Street Theater, and indeed Houston, should be proud.

The verdict:

A brilliantly comic early play by Bernard Shaw is brought to exciting life by talented direction and remarkable acting, making this a theatrical event. If at all possible, see it, for a production of this quality may not pass this way again.

Heartbreak House continues through June 1, Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or visit www.mainstreettheater.com.

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