George Bernard Shaw is known for his talk-y, and often witty polemical plays that foreground arguments about political philosophy, morality, and the enormous gaps between rich and poor. Anton Chekhov is known for his plays about the decline of the Russian aristocracy, epically doomed romances, the intensely self-absorbed, and a general stasis that prevents even the most modest goals from being realized. So what would happen if Shaw borrowed liberally from Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and attempted to re-write the story “in the Russian manner, on English themes?” For a mash-up of these two aesthetics, see “Heartbreak House,” at American Players Theatre, playing in rotating rep Up the Hill through October 5.
Directed and adapted by well-known playwright and Chekhov fan Aaron Posner (“That Stupid F-ing Bird” and “Life Sucks” are two of his modern takes on Russian classics) the play leans on the silliness of the family and friends who have all assembled at an English country house in the 19-teens to discuss love, marriage, money, convention, invention, honesty, propriety and social mores. And instead of letting these Chekhovian/Shavian characters philosophize themselves into a torpor or drown in their own morose world view, Posner finds the tipping point between tragedy and comedy, often punching up the ridiculousness, much to the delight of audiences.
Heartbreak House is the family home of Captain Shotover (Jonathan Smoots) a retired sea captain in his rum-enhanced dotage who has a dim view of current affairs. His busybody Bohemian daughter Hesione (Tracy Michelle Arnold) enjoys unconventional entertaining, by inviting people to the house and then pushing them off-balance with her honesty and eccentricity. Her dashing and dreadfully bored husband Hector (James DeVita) is Hesione’s kept man, a gorgeous pet with few diversions except flirting with other women and dazzling them with his fictional accomplishments. An efficient and apologetic housekeeper Nurse Guinness (Sarah Day) tries to welcome random guests to the house and keep the pantry stocked, in case the residents want to do something as conformist as eat regular meals. But even the help shows disregard for ceremony in assigning everyone a juvenile nickname (ducky, doty, lovey) as if she were wrangling a group of small children or more appropriately, inmates at an asylum. As Guinness remarks, “this house is full of surprises for them that don't know our ways.”
The visitors whose lives are turned upside down by a visit to Heartbreak House include Ellie Dunn (Phoebe González) a plucky young woman who is determined to marry for money instead of love; her father Mazzini (Tim Gittings), a poet and failed businessman who is much more wise than he initially lets on; Boss Mangan (John Taylor Phillips), a stuffy and ruthless captain of industry who has proposed to Ellie after ruining her father; and Lady Ariadne (Colleen Madden), the captain’s other daughter who fled the chaos of the house decades ago to marry a diplomat.
There’s plenty of angst, disillusionment and resignation to go around as these individuals bemoan their personal disappointments and gradually expose themselves as frauds. What if the heartless capitalist is actually penniless? What if the desperate, heartbroken bride decides not to marry for love or money? What if the family isn’t actually obliged to welcome you back after a long absence? What if inventions that help humanity are useless and the ones that destroy it are veritable goldmines? What if the safest place to hide isn’t an underground shelter, but actually in the open air, under a spotlight?
Posner’s production encourages empathy for these poor, misdirected souls instead of disdain. Their lives, it turns out, are so fragile and their transgressions so ludicrous, one has to laugh. And there are a lot of laughs in the play, as well as terrific performances.
Tracy Michelle Arnold is charmingly strange in a ruby red velvet ensemble that features floor-length, flourish-y sleeves and puffy harem pants underneath a split skirt. (Gorgeous costume design by Rachel Laritz.) In bare feet she prowls around the house like a mischievous cat, lounging on floor pillows and walking across the back of couch, reveling in attention wherever she can get it. Under a cascade of copper curls, she grits her teeth when her husband is busy enchanting other guests, but mostly flaunts her dislike for rules; eating ice cream for dinner and manipulating her guests to play out the story she wants to see.
As her prim and terminally disappointed sister Ariadne, Colleen Madden is as stiff and buttoned up as her tight, cobalt blue dress. Unable to cope with the entropy that drove her from the house in the first place, and deeply offended that her family will not meet her expectations of propriety, she is newly wounded and eventually finds an acceptable excuse for her escape.
As the handsome but useless husband, James DeVita slides over the furniture in discontented lounging. Delighted by the gamesmanship of wooing, but ashamed of the lies he manufactures to make himself look interesting, he is the picture of self-loathing. He wears his despair heavily on his shoulders in the final scene, leading the chorus of primal screams and howling at the universe, “Oh how will this end?” The irony, of course, is that we’re being asked to feel bad for a well dressed playboy sipping champagne and reclining under the evening stars and moon.
As the crusty captain in search of the “seventh degree of concentration,” aided by drunkenness, Jonathan Smoots is passionate in his convictions, whether he’s truth-telling or living in a dream world. That clear eyed certainty, when it comes, is undeniably attractive to one of the visitors. And the glimmer of emotional honesty the shines through in his conversation with Ariadne is the most straightforward heartbreak in the house. Smoots has rarely been better.
As the “straight man” in many of these conversations and revelations Phoebe González is logical and earnest in the extreme, until she realizes she’s more comfortable in the bohemian hideaway than the “real” world. Her christening of Heartbreak House is exaggerated and ironic, since the title appears in lights above the action of the play—she has discovered what the audience could see all along.
Shaw makes a deeply political statement in the play’s final scene that I won’t spoil, except to say that it brilliantly puts the characters’ mournful lamenting about very “first world problems” in a stark context that implicates them all in a much greater failing. This kind of wake-up call makes the seldom-performed play strikingly relevant.
Post Script: Bonus points to scenic designer Andrew Boyce for his cheeky stuffed seagull perched on the set.
Post Post Script: The fact that the play takes several swipes at Shakespeare is funny. The fact that "Othello" Ellie's favorite Shakespearean romance is as marvelous as it is absurd. Again, nice grace note in a show that turns everything upside-down.