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Heartbreak House

David Staller’s unfocused staging of Shaw’s 1914 philosophical play of ideas set on the eve of W.W. I attempts to connect it with the W.W. II bombing of England in 1940.

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The Cast of Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

David Staller’s production of Heartbreak House is definitely not what your mother would remember of Bernard Shaw’s philosophical play of ideas – or your grandmother, for that matter. Gingold Theatrical Group turns the theater into the basement of London’s Ambassadors Theatre in September 1940 during the first days of the Blitz. While the audience has taken shelter there, the cast offers to entertain the crowd with a play by Shaw, hence Heartbreak House, which takes place on the eve of World War I just before the bombs start falling. As an elaborate drawing room comedy, Heartbreak House, a cross between Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, would seem an odd choice to cheer up a wartime audience under siege.

This apparently is a tribute to Hermione Gingold, the namesake of GTG, who actually did this while the musical revues she was appearing in were halted by the bombing of London. The new production includes a sing-along of old time favorites before each of the play’s three acts, also a tribute to those days of wartime musicals that led to visits to air raid shelters. The problem is that none of this has anything to do with Shaw’s play which is a prediction of the coming dissolution of leisured, upper-class society. And Staller’s unfocused production which permits the actors to use many different styles does not help much. The version being used is reported to be the first production of Shaw’s original 1914 text which was later revised for the play’s world premiere in 1920. It is most noticeably different in the third act giving the play an alternate ending to the more commonly known one.

Karen Ziemba and Tom Hewitt in a scene from Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The actual play takes place at the home of 80-year-old Captain Shotover, the inventor of the failed lifeboat and now of a sonic ray to destroy dynamite. Shaw’s description of the house as a ship presages the fact that all its inhabitants are members of the ruling class at play, which the coming war threatens to destroy English society which is on the rocks. When asked the business of every good Englishman, the Captain replies, “Navigation. Learn it and live, or leave it and be damned.”

To this house young Ellie Dunn has been invited with her middle-aged fiancée, Boss Mangan, the captain of industry, and her father Mazzini Dunn, formerlly a political activitist but now a functionary in Mangan’s business after previously having been too honest for business ethics. Her hostess is Hesione Hushabye, Captain Shotover’s older daughter, a bohemian with a husband, the  idle Hector, a philanderer who finds women attracted to him without his having to lift a finger, but who never carries through. Hesione’s motivation in inviting these people is that she wants to break off Ellie’s engagement to the unsuitable Mangan, though his money would come in handy for the impecunious Dunns.

Alison Fraser and Tom Hewitt in a scene from Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

To this establishment also comes unexpectedly  the captain’s younger daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword, wife of a British governor-general, of one of Britain’s many outposts, who is on a year’s visit back to England for her health, followed by her brother-in-law, Randall, another idler who has been in the foreign service. Along with the outspoken elder Nurse Guinness who actually runs the house as housekeeper, a Burglar appears to steal Lady Utterword’s diamonds but only wants to blackmail the family into supporting him in order not to have the bother of turning him over to the police. The talk is of love, economics, politics, society, romance and psychology, the topics of any intellectual gathering.

Though engaged to Boss Mangan for mercenary reasons, Ellie is infatuated with a man she met at the National Gallery who turns out to be Hesione’s husband. As in the case of all well-plotted romantic comedies, everyone pairs off with the least likely partner: Lady Utterword is fascinated by her brother-in-law Hector who she has never met before; Hesione takes Boss Mangan under her wing and Ellie finds she is strangely attracted to Captain Shotover. Before the evening is over, the first bombs of World War I will begin falling and all will have had their hearts broken before learning a good deal about themselves. Ultimately, the play is intended as a warning about the future of British democracy as it was then being run.

Raphael Nash Thompson and Kimberly Immanuel in a scene from Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

One problem with the production is Brian Prather’s setting which is fine as a theater basement but does not suggest the elegant but eccentric country villa of Captain Shotover described by Shaw as suggesting the poop deck of a ship: This is rather important as the setting is symbolic of the “ship of state” heading towards the rocks. Prather’s only concession to this conceit is a steering wheel attached to a second level of the set and some hanging ropes. Barbara A. Bell’s costumes are generally felicitous to the women in particular Alison Fraser’s elegant gowns, but not so flattering to Karen Ziemba as the more bohemian sister. The lighting by Christina Watanabe occasionally goes in for some special effects but these tend to be intrusions rather than endemic to the play.

While the distinguished cast of eight contains four stars of Broadway musicals trailing Tony and Drama Desk Awards and nominations, the acting styles never seem to mesh. As the ostensible heroine Ellie Dunn, Kimberly Immanuel though sweet is rather bland, not taking a real stand as to how she sees this young woman. Karen Ziemba as Hesione gives the most realistic performance as the bohemian hostess, somewhat at odds with most of the other styles. Best is Tom Hewitt as her husband, the philandering Hector, who has the panache and suavity of a born boulevardier. As the visiting sister Lady Utterword, doyen of Governor Houses all over the world, Alison Fraser makes her affected rather imperious.

Karen Ziemba, Derek Smith (asleep), Jeff Hiller and Lenny Wolpe in a scene from Gingold Theatrical Group’s production of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Derek Smith as the tycoon Boss Mangan is more emotive than convincing as a “Napoleon of industry.” Playing Ellie’s humble and self-effacing father, Lenny Wolpe verges on that of a comic character rather than a noble one. Raphael Nash Thompson’s Captain Shotover is fine as far as he goes, but the character seems too low-key to have the years and experience of this philosopher/inventor. Jeff Hiller has the most difficult job playing three characters alternately. Unfortunately he is much too young to play either the elder Nurse Guinness or the equally elderly Burglar who turn out to be contemporaries. As Randall Utterword, late of the diplomatic corps, he is too neurotic and overwrought to be totally believable.

Gingold Theatrical Group’s Heartbreak House is an interesting but misguided attempt to update Shaw’s Edwardian masterpiece and make it seem more relevant to our times. Despite the stellar cast, the unfocused production by the usually reliable David Staller undermines much of the play’s humor and message. While the adept cast is stylish, they never gel into a true ensemble. This new version adapted from Shaw’s earlier 1914 script rather than the more famous 1919 published text will be of interest to Shaw devotees who will have never seen this rendering before.

Heartbreak House (through September 29, 2018)

Gingold Theatrical Group

The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 420 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit or

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (972 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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