Robin Leslie Brown and Joanne Campin Heartbreak House
Robin Leslie Brown and Joanne Camp
in Heartbreak House
If timing is the secret of comedy, then the actors in Gus Kaikkonen's production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House for the Pearl Theatre Company haven't been entirely let in on the secret. There is so much lax performing here, so many half gestures and missed emotional stresses -- particularly in the first of the play's three acts -- that despair sets in early on the audience's side of the footlights and the comedy-drama's prescient relevance to our own time threatens to go unappreciated.

In the 10-character cast, led by George Morfogen as Captain Shotover, Joanne Camp as Hesione Hushabye, and Rachel Botchan as Ellie Dunn, even the veteran Morfogen (stealing scenes on OZ this season with his teary beagle eyes) doesn't bring much more that a dotty stick-to-itiveness to his performance. When Morfogen, bearded to resemble Shaw himself, utters the dramatist-social critic's indictments of the ruling classes in the last act, he finally erupts with the kind of power and particularity that is largely missing from the rest of the proceedings. His fireworks are a decent match for those that Shaw writes into his stage directions; at this late hour, the energy fuels his colleagues and they finally display a range of astonishingly real reactions to the frightening developments. They are a moving tableau of people who, long dodging the inevitability of war, now respond to its outbreak with expressions that blend rapture and terror. (Feels uncomfortably familiar at the moment, doesn't it?)

When an actor of Morfogen's accomplishments seems to be operating on only a few cylinders, the problem may well be the direction. What with all of the characters awkwardly standing about in lines or shuffling a few chairs and benches around the set (Beowulf Boritt is billed as "scenic consultant"), it does indeed seem that Kaikkonen is to blame. Shaw, who had a devil of a good time writing about men and women deviling one another, sends his people hurtling through the action while making epigrammatic comments; the director's challenge is to see to it that actors acquit their roles stylishly. Unfortunately, "style" is a word with which this cast seems unfamiliar, and that may be the major heartbreak of this Heartbreak House.

From time to time, the light of understanding appears in the eyes of one or another of the ensemble members. Rachel Botchan doesn't reveal much of Ellie Dunn's modern-woman determination at first, but when the character decides that marrying the bombastic businessman Mangan for money is her main chance, the actress shows signs of life. Robin Leslie Brown, as Ariadne Utterwood, eventually has some fun with her role; and Dominic Cuskern, as a brother-in-law pining for his sister-in-law, is the most polished of the players. (He is also the only cast member who wears Liz Covey's period costumes as if born to them.) Dan Daily, who has doused the end of his nose with red and who consequently looks more like W. C. Fields than ever, rises at times to Boss Mangan's low-jinks. Joanne Camp, as the sweetly scheming hostess and object of too many men's attentions, occasionally gets some snap into her lines. One of them, by the way, goes, "Why can't you say it witty? If I had said that, it would have sounded witty." It's a spot of dialogue to which Shaw, had he wandered into a rehearsal for this mounting, might have called the cast's attention.

Many theater cognoscenti, Virginia Woolf and Shaw himself apparently among them, consider(ed) Heartbreak House to be Shaw's best play, and it isn't difficult to believe that the heartbreak he built into it is heartfelt. This "Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes," as the author categorizes the work, is the product of a man who loves his country enough to write with grit and urgency about how he sees it going wrong. Playwriting of this sort is often angry, presumptuous, and courageous, and Shaw's articulate heads-up is no exception. Aware that not everyone wants to hear common sense, and wary of his play being misunderstood, Shaw began it in 1915 but held it from the public until 1919. In the published version, he preceded the script with one of his voluble introductions, explaining that "Heartbreak House is not merely the name of the play....It's cultured, leisured England before the war." To drive this metaphor home, he has characters spew remarks like "I must make the best of my ruined house" and "This is a crazy house" throughout.

Since England's greatest triumphs had historically been of the maritime sort, Shaw makes Captain Shotover a retired military man who, incidentally, insists on mistaking Ellie Dunn's father for a pirate of his acquaintance; Shotover's abode is ship-like in appearance. (Scenic consultant Boritt, or whoever, has difficulty on this count; the set looks more like a grange meeting-hall. There is, however, a nice symbol of compromised Great Britain on stage: Hung at the back is a large curtain made to look like the lower quadrant of a Union Jack, and it is meaningfully split.) On Shawn's comic fo'c'sle, the alliterative Hesione and Hector Hushabye are busy entertaining men and women with whom they've been carrying on extra-marital affairs or with whom they'd like to be dallying. Invited by Hesione, Ellie Dunn realizes that the man she's been flirting with in town is Hector, so she shifts her attentions to entrepreneur Boss Mangan and, ultimately, to Captain Shotover.

Conventional morals being one of Shaw's pet peeves, especially as they thrived in a society intent on ignoring copious crippling injustices, the outraged but ever droll dramatist depicts his characters as caught in the act of flouting convention but not always with carefully considered purposes. Ellie Dunn is the most admirable of them, cleverly arranging to outmaneuver Boss Mangan and get revenge for his taking financial advantage of her kind-hearted father. Yet even she is chastised by Captain Shotover when, late in the play, he notes that his daughters Hesione and Ariadne are members of a generation squandering its efforts on romance. He also notes that Ellie, a member of the next generation, has unwisely decided that if nothing has meaning, accumulating money is the safe way out. Shotover's perorations include the rhetorical demand to know if we are "to be kept forever in the mud by these hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and greasing their snouts?"

How very current it all sounds to a New York City theatergoer in 2003. And how disappointing it is that Gus Kaikkonen and mates haven't lived up to Shaw who, in the nearly 40-page preface to Heartbreak House, wrote that "War cannot beat the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage." This production unwittingly mutes that glare.