"Heartbreak House": A long, demanding play becomes even longer, more demanding

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HARTFORD, Conn. — George Bernard Shaw's epic "Heartbreak House" unfolds over the course of a weekend at the country estate of Captain Shotover, a house in Sussex built in the shape of a ship.

As designed by Colin McGurk for Darko Tresnjak's fitful, at best, production at Hartford Stage, it is a sweeping, multilevel affair — grand and spacious with a commanding view of sky.

At the very opening, as audience members make their way to their seats, the stage already is occupied by a lone female, Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal), who is sitting on a couch in the stern-shaped drawing room, reading — just reading. At one point, she rises and glances upstairs, startled, as if she heard something, or someone, stirring and then, satisfied it was nothing, settles back onto the couch, gradually letting go of the book and nodding off into sleep.

There's a lot of sleep going on in Captain Shotover's house, as it turns out. For Shaw, sleep becomes a metaphor for a leisure class, a nation, in fact, that is asleep at the wheel as the ship of state perilously drifts off course.

Ellie has come to Captain Shotover's house at the invitation of one of Shotover's daughter's, Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry in an audacious, scintillating performance), who tries to talk Ellie out of her engagement to a business tycoon named Boss Mangan. Mangan, who saved her father's business, will also be among the guests, a terrifying creature in Shaw's hands, an absolutely ludicrous creation in the hands of Tresnjak and Andrew Long, who plays him (more on that in a bit).

Also among the guests is another of Shotover's daughters, the aggrieved Ariadne (Tessa Auberjonois), who arrives fresh off the boat from Australia. She has not seen her rum-soaked father (a dotty old man as played by Miles Anderson) in 23 years and he refuses to recognize her as flesh of his own flesh.

"Heartbreak House" unfolds as a series of small, drawing room comedies that play on and on. Personal allegiances are restructured, characters are unmasked and the music of their self-absorbed lives plays on as England heads toward peril.

Written in 1914 on the eve of World War I but neither published until 1919 nor first performed until November 1920, "Heartbreak House" is born out of Shaw's concern about the changing fabric of his nation.

Rather than a cautionary warning, the play became an indictment, of sorts, of how Britain got to where it had gotten in the devastating aftermath of "the war to end all wars."

"Heartbreak House" is a long, demanding but not, in the right hands, unrewarding play. Tresnjak's production, even with the cuts he has made — chiefly a subplot involving a burglar, who turns out to be connected to Ellie, feels even longer and more demanding. Scenes that are bound to one another as the play gathers momentum to its explosive ending here seem little more than loosely affiliated comedic vignettes.

Few characters in "Heartbreak House" command more thematic attention than Boss Mangan, a self-made tycoon who turns out to be something of a fraud. He has made his money out of shady business deals that have left others in ruin. At this point in his life, he has decided to reach for high public office even without political experience.

Mangan may have been created in 1914 but he speaks loud and clear to an American electorate that is trying desperately to survive the horrors emanating from the White House these days. But just to make sure we get the point, Tresnjak places an orange-blond comb-over coif on actor Andrew Long's head. At the evening performance I attended, Long's first entrance drew a gasp and then gales of laughter as he waddled his way across the stage like a wind-up toy, led by his Falstaffian girth, his guttural bass voice growling out his lines. Shaw may have intended Mangan to dominate his scenes but throughout this just-under-three-hours evening, he dominates in all the wrong ways. It's a distraction that does Shaw, and Hartford Stage audiences, a disservice. How emblematic of this ship of fools.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212.

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