Cast strengthens sturdy but unremarkable 'Heartbreak House'

  • Privileged Brits unwittingly await their own destruction in Writers Theatre's revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House."

    Privileged Brits unwittingly await their own destruction in Writers Theatre's revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House."

  • John Reeger plays the irascible Captain Shotover and Atra Asdou plays the determined Ellie Dunn in the Writers' Theatre revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House."

    John Reeger plays the irascible Captain Shotover and Atra Asdou plays the determined Ellie Dunn in the Writers' Theatre revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House."

  • The heartless Ariadne (Tiffany Scott) flirts with her sister's husband, Hector (Martin Yurek), in "Heartbreak House" at Writers' Theatre.

    The heartless Ariadne (Tiffany Scott) flirts with her sister's husband, Hector (Martin Yurek), in "Heartbreak House" at Writers' Theatre.

  • Unconventional sentimentalist Hesione Hushaby (Karen Janes Woditsch), center, refuses to let her young friend Ellie (Atra Asdou), left, marry for money, something that doesn't really bother Hesione's titled sister Lady Ariadne (Tiffany Scott), right. See how it all turns out in the Writers' Theatre revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House."

    Unconventional sentimentalist Hesione Hushaby (Karen Janes Woditsch), center, refuses to let her young friend Ellie (Atra Asdou), left, marry for money, something that doesn't really bother Hesione's titled sister Lady Ariadne (Tiffany Scott), right. See how it all turns out in the Writers' Theatre revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House."

 
 
Updated 5/5/2011 2:22 PM

This latest revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" has everything we've come to expect from a classic Writer's Theatre production.

It boasts an able ensemble fluent in Shavian discourse and endowed with a keen sense of comic timing, especially John Reeger whose performance as an irascible, retired sea captain reveals a veteran at the top of his game. It's directed by William Brown with his usual refinement, and the action unfolds on a lush, inviting set exquisitely designed by Keith Pitts.

 

But for all its good looks, polish and still relevant criticism of shameless capitalism and casual morality, this "Heartbreak House" isn't especially riveting. The production feels a bit detached, much like Shaw's characters -- idle, self-absorbed Brits frittering away the days as the apocalypse approaches. Put in real estate terms, Writers' "Heartbreak House" is the theatrical equivalent of a Chicago bungalow: sturdy and comfortable but not especially distinctive.

Shaw set the didactic, thorny "Heartbreak House" just before the start of World War I. Brown, however, advances the timeline to 1940, just before the Battle of Britain. It concerns dashed romantic aspirations and unrequited affection among the quirky residents of an English country estate and their mostly upper-crust guests, who indulge in their diversions completely unaware of the pending political turmoil.

Presiding over the estate is the canny, rum-loving Captain Shotover (played with wry panache by Reeger). He is the father of the free-spirited Hesione Hushabye (Karen Janes Woditsch who makes carelessness endearing) and her estranged sister Lady Ariadne Utterword (played with predatory allure by Tiffany Scott), who has severed family ties in her pursuit of position, power and respectability.

The family, which also includes Hesione's philandering husband, Hector (a delightfully facile Martin Yurek channeling Rudolph Valentino), welcomes for the weekend a pair of poor but respectable guests. They are India natives Ellie Dunn (the winsome, if somewhat dispassionate Atra Asdou) and her failed businessman father, Mazzini (played with understated dignity by Kareem Bandealy). Mazzini has been duped by his onetime benefactor, the carnivorous industrialist Boss Mangan (the terrific John Lister, whose multidimensional villain emerges as the show's most empathetic character), who is also a guest at the estate and whom Ellie considers marrying saying, "if I can't have love, there's no reason why I should have poverty."

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Ellie's decision to wed the much-older Mangan infuriates the sentimental Hesione who is determined that her friend should marry for love. That's not possible, however, because Ellie's love is married to another.

Rounding out the cast is Kevin Christopher Fox as Ariadne's brother-in-law and sometime lover, Jennie Affelder as the family's plain-spoken nurse, and Tim Gittings as a hapless burglar whom the family declines to prosecute because testifying in court would be too great an inconvenience.

Pitts' lovely, overgrown set with its faded carpets suggests not just the insulation of these characters from outside events, but their seemingly dwindling fortunes. That condition is also reflected in Shotover's scuffed shoes and dull bathrobe, but not in Rachel Anne Healy's handsome, jewel-toned gowns, a metaphoric gilding of lillies from an era that has lost its bloom.