Hartford Stage is currently presenting a generally good revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” On a majestic, boat-inspired set, wonderfully designed by Colin McGurk, representing the family house, this production is very well paced, with a fine cast and mostly expert direction by Darko Tresnjak. If there is one problem with the show, it is that one of the characters has been costumed to resemble Donald Trump, complete with blonde wig. While the initial entrance of this character inspires laughter and applause, this directorial choice ultimately works against the play and the production. Still, this is a minor problem, and the nine member cast is otherwise able to pull off George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” with a great deal of finesse and wit.
“Heartbreak House” takes place in England in 1914 and it focuses on a somewhat complicated group of people. Before the show even starts, the curtain is up and we see the youngest character, Ellie Dunn (the terrific Dani De Waal), waiting in the living room of the house. Having this actress onstage even before the play actually begins turns out to work quite well, as her character is supposed to have been waiting awhile before someone finally greets her at the house. Nurse Guinness (the amusing and reliable Mary VanArrsdel) discovers Ellie and keeps trying to serve her tea, despite being sidelined by the patriarch of the family, Captain Shotover, played spectacularly by Miles Anderson.
The other members of the family include the sisters, Lady Utterword (the superb Tessa Auberjonois) and Hesione Hushabye (portrayed by the sparkling Charlotte Parry), both of whom seem more than a little madcap and eccentric. Actually, just about everyone onstage seems slightly unusual. This list also includes the classy and handsome Stephen Barker Turner, as Hector Hushabye, Hesione’s husband, though Hector also seems to have a romantic connection with Ellie. Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (the excellent Keith Reddin), is stalwart, but a little absent-minded. The dapper Grant Goodman, as Randall Utterword, Lady Utterword’s brother-in-law, seems relatively normal, though he harbors some secrets of his own.
And then there is Andrew Long, as Boss Mangan, an older gentleman, who is to be married to the much younger Ellie. For some reason, director Darko Tresnjak has decided to costume Boss Mangan as a Trump look-alike. Indeed, when Long makes his entrance in a fat suit and combed over wig, there is quite a strong reaction from the audience. To an extent, this Trump connection with the character works (especially when other characters recommend that Boss Mangan enter into “politics.”) However, a little of this goes a long way and the references to Donald Trump ultimately work against the character (and the actor playing him), as well as taking us out of the time period and action of the play. Still, Andrew Long does his best and he does win the requisite laughs that were intended.
While the beauty and eloquence of George Bernard Shaw’s writing gets spoiled a little bit, there are definite compensations, especially in a truly outstanding scene after intermission, between Captain Shotover and Ellie. that proves to be spellbinding. Director Tresnjak has wisely staged the show with characters occupying all different areas of the remarkable and vast three-leveled set of the house. Complementing the scenic designer’s work is Ilona Somogyi’s ideal costume design, especially in the period perfect dresses for the women. Lighting designer Matthew Richards also scores highly in illuminating the various scenes in the production.
“Heartbreak House” at Hartford Stage is a formidable staging of this classic play and, aside from the visual references to Trump, actually works quite beautifully. The show runs nearly three hours, with one intermission, and the play remains intriguing and often humorous, even though there are definite signs of real danger near the end of the show. “Heartbreak House” is definitely worth seeing and should be a good introduction to those new to George Bernard Shaw’s masterful work.
“Heartbreak House” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through June 11, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: The Company
Photo by T. Charles Erickson