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Laughter in the Dark

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Heartbreak House

Goodman Theatre

When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots. --George Bernard Shaw, preface to Heartbreak House

Reviewing a Remy Bumppo production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House in 1998, I wrote: "As we drift toward the millennium in a post-cold war world waiting to see which religious, ethnic, or environmental problem will erupt into global disaster, Shaw's feckless, futile drifters are readily recognizable." Six years later--after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in the midst of our inept, scandal-ridden adventure in the Middle East--Shaw's 1919 play resonates all the more. Written in response to World War I, it was Shaw's portrait of a prewar "cultured, leisured Europe." The characters are decent, foolish, charming, complacent, and oblivious to the imminent ruin of their genteel lifestyle despite the thud of distant bombs--"heaven's threatening growl of disgust," one of them calls the sound. The air raid at the play's ambiguous climax may or may not kill the people we've spent three acts watching. But Shaw and his audience knew that the explosions represented the collapse of a seemingly civilized world once believed to be invulnerable; and we know it too.

"War cannot bear the...ruthless light of laughter," Shaw wrote in the script's preface. Now may not be the time to do Heartbreak House--or else it's the time to play it to the hilt, as the Goodman Theatre is doing. Remy Bumppo's understated, intimate production quivered with an appropriate Chekhovian melancholy: Shaw subtitled the play "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes." But the Goodman's new staging might be christened "a farce in the Anglo-American manner on universal themes." This energetic, imaginative, brightly colored show sometimes evokes a comedy of manners in the style of Wilde or Coward, and more often the screwball comedy of Kaufman and Hart. Director Kate Whoriskey, who staged a beautiful magic-realist version of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo at Goodman last year, wields a high concept and a sometimes heavy hand that will engage some viewers and put others off. I was invigorated (as were many in the audience at the Sunday matinee I attended). While I was never caught up in the characters' emotions the way I was during Remy Bumppo's rendition, I was swept along by the bold direction and vibrant performances, entertained by the sometimes broad comedy, and provoked by the text, which for better and worse speaks more starkly here than it did in Remy Bumppo's hands.

Set on an English estate in 1916 (and inspired in part by a country weekend the Shaws spent that year with Virginia and Leonard Woolf), the play focuses on the elderly Captain Shotover and his eccentric clan. Part madman and part visionary, this ancient mariner symbolizes the venturesome spirit of Queen Victoria's Britain; a sometime inventor, he hoards dynamite in a gravel pit--perhaps "to blow up the human race if it goes too far," someone observes. Shotover's middle-aged daughter Hesione is a bohemian siren whose free-spirited ways barely mask a meddlesome selfishness. Her handsome husband, Hector Hushabye, is--as his name implies--a romantic dreamer. He's also a compulsive womanizer whose "inventions" are the various personas he adopts to attract younger women.

One of those women--pretty, feisty Ellie Dunn--is inadvertently invited to the house, and her realization that Hector is Hesione's husband represents one of the play's heartbreaks. Her romantic dreams dashed, Ellie agrees to marry Boss Mangan, a middle-aged "Napoleon of industry" who supposedly helped Ellie's father when he went bankrupt--though in fact Mangan engineered Dunn's financial collapse. Hesione, determined to wreck Ellie's engagement to Mangan, sets out to "fascinate" the conniving capitalist herself. Meanwhile Hector becomes infatuated with Hesione's sister Ariadne--or Lady Utterword, as she tells people to call her. Married to an aristocratic diplomat, she insists that "there are only two classes in good society in England: the equestrian classes and the neurotic classes." But there's a seductive side to this "rigidly conventional" social climber, highlighted here by a running gag involving a riding crop. The other inmates of this mad "house without foundation" are the "unworthy younger brother" of Ariadne's husband; Nurse Guinness, the housekeeper; and a burglar who provides the play with a spokesman for the lower classes.

Indeed, all the characters are more types than real people--mainly types observed by Shaw as he moved through the upper-crust and bohemian worlds of his day, but types nonetheless. That's one of the play's central flaws. The other is its unevenly paced dialogue, alternately concise and windy, epigrammatic and didactic. There are wit and profundity in many of Shaw's lines, to be sure: "Decent men are like Daniel in the lion's den: their survival is a miracle." But Shaw resorts to pamphleteering when another character denounces Mangan's ilk as "hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts." Indeed, when the play made its London debut in 1921 (a year after its premiere on Broadway), some wags dubbed it "Jawbreak House."

Whoriskey doesn't try to hide the speechifying. In fact she expands it, interpolating portions of a letter Shaw wrote about enduring a zeppelin attack as well as passages from "The Second Coming," written by Shaw's fellow Irishman W.B. Yeats in response to the Great War: "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned."

The mannered performances take their cue from Hector's comment that "in this house we know all the poses." The results are mostly excellent. Alyssa Bresnahan (the volcanic heroine of Whoriskey's Rose Tattoo) is charismatic as a flamboyantly eccentric Hesione: think Auntie Mame played by the young Diana Rigg. But when Hesione drops her flighty facade to reveal the bitter meddler beneath, Bresnahan makes the shift seismic. Don Reilly is wonderful as Hector, providing the show's funniest sight gag by dragging himself across the floor while he pantomimes making love, his surrogate partner a throw pillow. But Reilly is gripping when he recites Yeats's prophecy of disaster. With his shock of white hair and thick white beard, Jack Wetherall's Shotover is a stand-in for Shaw--shuffling and distracted one minute, piercingly focused the next. Mary Beth Fisher as Ariadne and Jerry Saslow as Utterword are crisply comic while Marin Ireland as Ellie and off-Loop stalwart Will Zahrn (making his overdue debut on the Goodman stage) are an exceptionally sympathetic father and daughter. And as Mangan, the bluff bully who's putty in Hesione's hands, Matt DeCaro is hilarious and poignant, continuing his midlife emergence as one of Chicago's finest character actors.

Aided by Walt Spangler's sets and Catherine Zuber's costumes, all of them lusciously colorful, this sometimes fantastical production is Shaw as protoabsurdist philosopher/entertainer. In Whoriskey's hands, Heartbreak House is apocalyptic comedy--at once haunting and hilarious.

The League of Chicago Theatres celebrates its 25th anniversary by giving its 2004 Tribute Award to an exceptionally deserving recipient: Lois Weisberg, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. When the Daley administration announced plans to revitalize the Loop as a theater district, I was skeptical that off-Loop artists would be represented. Happily I was wrong, thanks in large part to Weisberg. A former drama teacher, she was a crucial supporter in the 1960s of the old Hull House Theater, where the concept of a neighborhood-based theater network first flowered. And under her stewardship the elegant old Chicago Cultural Center has become a vital venue for visual art and theater as well as a civic landmark; its principal performance spaces, complemented by the nearby Storefront and Loop theaters, have hosted some of the fringiest theater Chicago has to offer. Anyone in public life earns detractors as well as admirers, but Weisberg has proved a forceful advocate for diversity in the arts and even with tight budgets has given smart, talented people the leeway to produce good work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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