‘House’ of Great Repute

Illustration by Frank Stockton

The Roundabout’s new revival of Heartbreak House will, like its author, irritate almost everyone. Pure-minded Shavians will fume that some of his precious dialogue has been cut, as has one entire character. Those unused to Shaw’s intellectual comedy will wonder when these English will shut up already and do something. I sympathize with both complaints. Still, what Captain Shotover, Shaw’s eccentric alter ego, says in this play goes just as well for the production: “People don’t have their virtues and vices in sets: they have them anyhow: all mixed.”

If you haven’t kept up with the Roundabout lately, you might not realize what a surprise that is. Twice in the last year, the company revived a classic I adored; both experiences, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and The Threepenny Opera, were like watching an old friend getting waterboarded. Director Robin Lefevre should have been nimbler with Shaw’s comedy, and I wish he hadn’t been so stingy with the text, but he gets the play across. More than that, he lets you grasp what an unrelenting masterpiece this is.

Beneath its laughs, Heartbreak House is a play written in vinegar by a man full of spleen. Shaw, not the most chipper of playwrights in the best of times, responded to the horrors of World War I with a scathing comedy about the idle English. The title refers not just to a building, he wrote, but to all of “cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” As the mad captain’s guests toy with each other’s hearts, Shaw attacks the comfortable fictions that—even now—get us through the day. My favorite: Far from being the weightless, immaterial thing we like to imagine, the soul is expensive, requiring all sorts of books and trips and music to keep fed.

Lefevre is at his best in the long second act, when Shaw ties love, life, and money together so closely that the boundaries between them dissolve. As the disillusioned young Ellie Dunn, Lily Rabe sometimes ought to be coy when she’s angry, but continues to reveal a budding talent. But Swoosie Kurtz doesn’t bring off Hesione’s dangerous bohemian allure, nor does Philip Bosco convince as the loony, “excessively old” Shotover. Though his fluffy beard may have been meant to evoke a stern prophet of the Old Testament, he seems better suited to delivering Christmas gifts, say, or fronting the Grateful Dead.

All the same, this lineup represents a major advance over the usual celebrity-heavy Roundabout affair. As the superb Byron Jennings, the exquisite Laila Robins, exciting newcomer Gareth Saxe, and the rest of the top-notch New York cast guided Shaw’s play toward its weirdly apocalyptic ending, a strange feeling came over me: I think it might have been admiration.

While the roundabout nobly resists its worst tendencies, its fellow Broadway nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club kicks off the season by giving free rein to its own: mishandled new plays and snoozy domesticity. A hit in Britain, Simon Mendes da Costa’s family comedy Losing Louie has been imported, sans English accent, local references, and anything funny, novel, or moving. Jerry Zaks’s production sends us for the thousandth time—frequently, though not exclusively, compliments of MTC—to a boringly tasteful bedroom in a sedately manicured suburb. As in Arcadia and Three Days of Rain, two generations share one space. But where Stoppard was erudite and Greenberg wittily melancholy, Mendes is “We can’t go on like this,” and “Please don’t laugh. I’m having your baby,” and “What am I, chopped liver?”

Other shows later this season will let us probe more deeply into what the hell is going on at MTC. For now, one question suffices: It has the risk-taking luxury of nonprofit status, a big Broadway stage, a city full of gifted actors and directors and playwrights—and they went to London for this?

Earlier this year, Cynthia Nixon collected a Tony for depicting a grieving mother in Rabbit Hole. I didn’t think much of the play’s movie-of-the-week melodramatics, and wasn’t sold on Nixon’s performance. She seemed far too reasonable to lose her head the way her character did. Her work in the New Group’s revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t satisfy either, but now she’s got me intrigued.

Here, reasonableness is not an issue: As Scottish schoolteacher Jean Brodie, she’s a troublemaking voluptuary with the occasional Fascist and anti-clerical impulse. In and out of affairs with various colleagues, she suffers all sorts of professional and personal setbacks, but Nixon never quite crumbles. She’s not an ice queen à la Hepburn—there’s no hauteur in her performance. Rather, she conveys a certain resoluteness, a sense of being tougher than any problem the world throws her way.

It’s not a question of talent, but of fit: I’d be delighted to see her light up one of the great comedies—or, if she wants to stick to serious roles, stretch to play one of the classical dragons. Anything better than another of these dreary dramas. For although Scott Elliott has done a creditable job staging the play—and drawn a fine debut performance from Zoe Kazan in the role of the teacher’s pet/saboteur—it was sometimes hard to see the thing through memories of better work along these lines: Doubt, The History Boys, No Child, Spring Awakening …

“Isn’t it called The Bad Man?” a friend asked when I invited her to Neil LaBute’s new play at the Public. Actually it’s called Wrecks, but we had a laugh over how easy the mistake had been. What LaBute play couldn’t be called that?

So we went, me and my friend. And when we sat down we saw this big black coffin onstage, and a projection of a woman’s picture. We knew we were supposed to think this was a funeral, because they’d given us this little prayer card on the way in. I was going to tell my friend how clever I thought that was, but I was, like, preoccupied. I was trying to figure out how to convey what it’s like to see yet another LaBute play, where you know that most of it will go by, then all of a sudden there’ll be some crazy twist ending that changes everything, but you can’t give that away in a review, you know? Well, I didn’t come up with anything good, because just then Ed Harris came out onstage. It must not be easy to say LaBute’s dialogue, which sounds, like, really natural? But Harris was great—totally compelling, no matter what he had to say. In person his eyes are bluer than in the movies, like Paul Newman–blue almost, and his voice is like honey. Well, sometimes. Most of the time it’s pretty brusque. I mean, what do you expect? He’s burying his wife. Well, sort of. She’s actually—

Hey, look at that, I’m out of room. I’d better close, but I’ve been holding out on you, so I might as well just say it: Neil LaBute is not a human being. He is a big talking dog. He likes to drive around in a van and solve crimes with his friends and eat snacks. You might think that because his plays have increasingly ludicrous surprise endings and are not just self-parodic these days but actively silly, with no discernible purpose deeper than providing a chance for meaninglessly clever twists, it’s because Neil LaBute really likes Scooby-Doo. It’s not. It’s because Neil LaBute is Scooby-Doo.

Shaw was surely thinking of Chekhov when he subtitled Heartbreak House “a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” and it attracts the same kind of persistent attention from actors and producers that, say, The Cherry Orchard does. This is the fifth Broadway production of the play, and Philip Bosco’s second; he played gruff capitalist Boss Mangan in the 1983 revival. His co-stars in that show, Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris, had just come off another production of the play in London. But the marquee star of this revival, Swoosie Kurtz as Hesione, had never so much as read the play beforehand, and says, “I was really glad to come to the show as a virgin.”

Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw. American Airlines Theatre. Through December 3.

Losing Louie
By Simon Mendes da Costa. Biltmore Theatre. Through December 10.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By Jay Presson Allen. Acorn Theatre. Through December 9.

By Neil Labute. Public Theater. Through November 19.

‘House’ of Great Repute