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Heartbreak House

Posted 9/10//18

Heartbreak House  reviewed  by Fern Siegel for


George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Lion Theater is masterful.

First produced in 1920, it’s been retooled and restaged in an inspired off-Broadway production with a pitch-perfect cast that captures Shaw’s love of Big Ideas and social satire. Inspired because it begins in 1940, in the basement/bomb shelter of a West End theater during the London Blitz.

In fact, to keep the audience calm, as chaos rages outside, we all participate in a bracing sing-along of “Pack Up Your Troubles.”

But the show must go on — and it does. Survival is the unofficial credo of the Shotover/Utterword clan, the denizens of Heartbreak House, set in 1914, at the onset of World War I. A bourgeoisie family of charmers and eccentrics, they live in their own cozy world; reality rarely dents their sensibilities. It’s a portrait of a leisurely Europe drifting toward destruction.

 The theater sign —Freedom Is in Peril / Defend It With All Your Might — is discreet, but the message is clear. Tyranny cannot stand — in any age. Heartbreak House, which is loaded with zingy and acidic barbs about freedom and self-expression, lashes out at corporate greed and political corruption.

Which makes the play, under David Staller’s deft direction, highly relevant today.

Ellie (Kimberly Immanuel) comes to a house in Sussex at the invite of Hesione Hushabye (a clever Karen Ziemba), who hopes to convince the young woman not to marry the evil tycoon Boss Mangan (Derek Smith).

Hesione is enraged that Mangan swindled Ellie’s sweet-natured father (Lenny Wolpe). She decries such a marriage, insisting Ellie doesn’t love him. Ellie neatly counters that love is a luxury her class cannot afford. To a poor woman, marriage is not a great romance; it is a business transaction with an eye on the bottom line.

Hesione and her flirtatious husband Hector (a dashing Tom Hewitt) reside with her inventor father, Captain Shotover (Raphael Nash Thompson), currently building a “psychic ray” that will destroy dynamite. His second daughter, the aristocratic Lady Utterword (a deliciously over-the-top Alison Fraser), returns after a 23-year absence, followed by her lovesick brother-in-law (a hilarious Jeff Hiller who plays three different roles).

Deception and illusion, as well as love and class entitlement, dominate the household. Shaw notes the great question is not who we are, but what we are. Are we conformists or individualists? Self-serving narcissists or people committed to social justice?

Motives, personalities and sensibilities are unmasked and challenged as the inhabitants of Heartbreak House are forced to confront the reality about themselves and their changing world.

The fast-paced production is madcap and entertaining, blessed with Barbara A. Bell’s wonderful costumes and Brian Prather’s set design. The excellent cast and intimate setting are ideally suited to advance Shaw’s larger concern: We ignore danger signs at our peril. —Fern Siegel