Philip Bosco and Swoosie Kurtz in Heartbreak House(© Joan Marcus)
Philip Bosco and Swoosie Kurtz in Heartbreak House
(© Joan Marcus)
Trumpeting his skills as a visionary, George Bernard Shaw insisted that he began writing Heartbreak House before World War I broke out. In a work he described as "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes," he set out to depict a society behaving foolishly as irreversible upheaval approached. So insistent was Shaw on making his point in a Chekhovian manner (and manor) that he doesn't seem to have cared if what he ranted about in his wittily polemical way added up to a logical, let alone lucid, comedy-drama.

Ultimately, it doesn't. Still, it's spellbinding, and Robin Lefevre's current production for the Roundabout marvelously casts the required magic spell. It's a proud tribute to Shaw's purpose. For a company often content with the second-rate, this could be its finest hour, surpassing the same outfit's well-done Major Barbara of five years back.

Heartbreak House isn't an easy play. Indeed, it has confounded the most intelligent critics. The highly respected commentator Stark Young once thought it the best of Shaw's plays but, in response to the Mercury Theatre's 1938 revival, decided instead that it was "garrulous, unfelt and tiresome." Absorbing it now, a spectator wavers from minute to minute between Young's extremes. The situations involving the figures gathered in this house of present and impending heartbreak don't convincingly cohere into a satisfying dramatic whole. The denouement -- in which perilously close bombing presages the end of an imperial nation's greatest era, and which echoes the axes heard at the conclusion of Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard -- is contrived.

But hold on. The startling honesty that the characters show towards each other as they hurtle through articulate confrontations is profoundly refreshing. "We've stripped ourselves morally naked," one player gasps. "Well, let's strip ourselves physically naked as well." As is common to the proactive socialist Shaw's often prolix plays, individual lines streak like rockets over a besieged city. "I knew that the surest way to ruin a man who doesn't know how to handle money is to give him some," goes another pithy remark. Another suggests with Shavian cynicism that "a soul is a very expensive thing to keep."

There are plenty more bon mots where those came from, as the aging but unbowed Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco) and daughter Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) welcome a few unexpected guests. Among them are Shotover's long-missing daughter, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins); Hesione's gallivanting husband, Hector (Byron Jennings); and Ariadne's brother-in-law, Randall (Gareth Saxe). Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe), who thinks she is expected, is also on hand with her impoverished father, Mazzini (John Christopher Jones), and her apparently rich fiancé, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp). Never arriving in this production is a burglar, whom director Lefevre has dropped from the dramatis personae along with a sizable portion of Shaw's more repetitive lines.

The glory of Lefevre's treatment is that he plays up the work's pluses so effectively that the minuses are all but completely banished to the shadows. Set designer John Lee Beatty, who's never at a loss when it comes to putting up an intriguing house, carefully follows Shaw's explicit instructions that Captain Shotover's residence is literally ship-shape. Jane Greenwood, never at a loss when required to provide clothes that look as if they've graced the pages of the best fashion magazines, outfits the men splendidly and the women with even more panache; the slinky Hesione's garb looks like skins for the snake that invaded the garden of Eden, while Ariadne has a second-act gown with a full skirt that resembles a curtain going up on a fabulous opening night. Tom Watson's wigs for the ladies cascade like waterfalls.

Now let's make merry over the ensemble. To a man and woman, including Jenny Sterlin as a no-guff household retainer, they're very close to perfection. Bosco, who was Tony-nominated as Boss Mangan in the 1983 Rex Harrison-led revival, is puckishly philosophical as he broadcasts that million-dollar voice of his. Robins looks as regal and behaves as regally as the script specifies. Kurtz, in her flaming-red wig, slinks around as if she's boneless but not toothless, since she bites into everything she says.

Jennings, who turns up in a desert prince's get-up for a while, does Hector's flighty swagger well. Camp is hilariously serious as the eventually flummoxed Mangan, Jones is an appealingly comfortable Mazzini, Saxe is nimble as Randall. And Lily Rabe, looking remarkably like plucky Mary Pickford, gives the production's best performance. She's magnificently authoritative as the forthright Ellie, the whipped cream on top of this heartening Heartbreak House.