- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

The overall experience of Round House Theatre’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” is like watching very expensive paint dry.

Although endowed with an enviable cast, a poshly baronial set by James Kronzer, and the whip-smart Nick Olcott as director, “Heartbreak House” does not exactly throw out the welcome mat.

Mr. Shaw’s play, written in 1920, is both a harsh indictment of the elite generation prior to World War I and an antiwar play in which the word “war” is never uttered. Instead, the play is one big metaphor — the “heartbreak house” of the title refers to a manor house in the English countryside populated by a family of bohemians and their bewildered guests.

The Shotover clan — presided over by the sage and dotty Captain Shotover (the sublime Emery Battis) — are willful eccentrics and romantic anachronisms stuck in the 19th century. It’s not that they can’t make the leap into modern times — it’s just that they don’t want to.

Guided by noblesse oblige, the family remains dreamy and removed, while bombs fall and the outside world threatens to topple their carefully constructed ivory tower. The empire is crumbling, the class system is in upheaval, and economics are becoming ever more political, but the Shotovers are concerned with tea and strolls in the garden — preserving an ideal of jolly olde England that may never have existed in the first place.

To Mr. Shaw, the most grievous sin of the privileged classes of pre-war England was not wealth or capitalism, but the fact that they did nothing to stop World War I. They are complicit, because they were armchair socialists and revolutionaries — all talk and no action.

As social critic, Mr. Shaw pulls no punches. “Heartbreak House” may have a veneer of genteel manners and witty one-liners, but the play is at heart a nonstop, arsenic-dipped diatribe against isolationist aristocrats, empty-souled capitalists and women who cling to the 19th-century notion that they need to marry “up” in order to survive.

In keeping with the play’s didactic aims, the characters are all “types” who have populated drawing room comedies since Shakespeare picked up a quill. There is the innocent young girl, Ellie Dunn (Megan Anderson), who worships her father, Mazzini (Michael Tolaydo), a poor intellectual. Ellie is engaged to a stuffy businessman, “Boss” Mangan (Gerry Bamman), which is more of a financial arrangement than a love match. The three are thrown into a household filled with upper-crust loonies — the old sea captain; his dangerously alluring bohemian daughter, Hesione (Jane Beard); her husband, an incorrigible flirt and liar (Marty Lodge); a snooty and ambitious society matron, Lady Utterwood (Kathryn Kelley); and her devoted suitor, a dashing ne’er-do-well (John Lescault).

The problem is that the actors never transcend type. The performances are glib, but since they never delve below the surface, we tire of them rather quickly (and their British accents are all over the map). One pleasant exception is Mr. Battis, whose timing and line-readings are impeccable. Miss Anderson is also sharp as the ingenue who evolves into a budding suffragette.

Unfortunately, Mr. Battis seems to be playing to the void, since all the actors seem to be estranged from one another. There is coldness where there should be connection.

You should be lulled by the preciousness of the Shotovers and their air-sealed withdrawal from the modern world. You should be charmed by them — and then quietly devastated near the end on realizing that their complacency is their prison.

Instead, you emerge feeling you have spent nearly three hours with some perfectly respectable, rather tedious company.

**

WHAT: “Heartbreak House” by George Bernard Shaw

WHERE: Round House Theatre, East-West Highway at Waverly Street, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 14

TICKETS: $29 to $39

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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