Seen and Heard

Seen on Broadway: It may be that a great production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House is necessary to bring out what’s good in it. The serviceable Roundabout Theatre Company revival now playing at the American Airlines Theatre is pleasantly acted and not without interest in our own troubled times, but I couldn’t bear a grudge against audience members who were dozing in their seats around me. First produced on Broadway in 1920, this was Shaw’s attempt at a Chekhovian ambiance, and it has an air of romantic wispiness that doesn’t quite sync up with the bombs that by play’s end are beginning to drop on its frivolous, lovelorn, moneyed characters. Other passages in the show, which takes place in 1914 on the eve of the Great War, have an almost existential feel about them. It’s a curious play, difficult to grab onto, and one whose last Broadway appearance, in 1983, had Rex Harrison, Rosemary Harris, and Amy Irving to put it across.

The current revival, ploddingly directed by Robin Lefevre, retains one of the previous incarnation’s Tony-nominated co-stars, Philip Bosco, and casts him as the philosophical Captain Shotover. Shotover, who is welcoming weekend guests, resides in the hill country mansion of the title, which is quite literally ship-shape, not that John Lee Beatty’s nautically inflected set exaggerates or even stresses the resemblance. Everyone onboard Heartbreak House for the festivities is a little seasick, in one way or another: As Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe, in a winning performance) prepares to marry the boorish capitalist Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), Shotover’s calculating daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz), encourages the young woman to seek affection elsewhere, even if the object of Ellie’s true desire is Hesione’s philandering husband, Hector (Byron Jennings). Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne Utterwood (Laila Robins), puts on grand airs while other characters flit in and out of the manor, which in Act II revolves for an exterior view as everyone congregates outdoors. The approach of war, which Shaw alludes to only a little in the carefree if melancholy-tinged roundelay, gives sound designer John Gromada the chance to pull out all the stops as the boom of warplanes and their deadly cargo resounds.

Thanks in no small part to costume designer Jane Greenwood, who performed the same duty in 1983, this is a handsome show. The actresses get the best of her finery—Robins, in particular, looks born to the period—and I imagine she and hair and wig designer Tom Watson share honors for transforming Bosco, who presides over the piece, into the very image of the playwright. (Kurtz, too, makes a spectacular impression, with her bloom of red curls.) The lighting design, by Peter Kaczorowski, is very fine, particularly in Act I, where he pushes the use of orange to suggest a majestically lowering sunset; I’ve never quite seen one created that way, to that extent. [Great Lakes Scenic Studios, Showman Fabricators, and Hudson Scenic Studio worked on the set, with PRG supplying the lights and Sound Associates the audio.] What’s missing from Heartbreak House is a more fully realized text, or a more committed interpretation of the drawing-room “fantasia” Shaw intended the play to be.

Seen Off Broadway: Commitment is no problem for My Name is Rachel Corrie, a solo show, imported from London’s Royal Court Theatre, now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. The show, adapted from the e-mails and journals of the slain peace activist, kicked up a ruckus last spring when the New York Theatre Workshop decided that now was not the right time to stage a production that looks at the Israel-Palestinian conflict from the Palestinian side of the fence—Corrie, who worked with families in Gaza, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. If you look at a piece like this purely through the prism of ideology, there would never be a right time to stage it, and that the show is up and running at all is commendable.

My Name is Rachel Corrie, edited into play form by Alan Rickman and Katharine Victor, and directed by Rickman, is tough on Israel—this is a single-minded portrayal of the conflict, seen solely through its subject’s impassioned writings—but is toughest on all state-sponsored violence. “A lot of the time the kindness of the people here, coupled with the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me,” says Corrie, who is played by Megan Dodds. “I can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry. It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be.”

Corrie’s collegiate girlishness is the focus of the first part of the 90-minute show, which has a tightly integrated design. Hildegard Bechtler, who designed the Holocaust-set Primo last season, has devised a barren, bullet-ridden, cinder block setting, with cheap plastic chairs. Stage right houses Corrie’s campus room, with its collage of family and revolutionary figures adding a splash of red to the production (Bechtler is also credited with Corrie’s informal jeans-and-sneakers look). This part of the set is rolled off once the play moves from Washington state, Corrie’s home, into the Middle East, where Johanna Town’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound take on a new urgency as the more world-wise activist is thrust into the conflict. Laxton’s video design, played across a TV screen, ends the show on a commemorative note. [The set was constructed by Miraculous Engineering, with lighting from GSD and audio from One Dream Sound.] My Name is Rachel Corrie is a suitable outcry for this foolhardy, exasperating, and brave young woman.

Playwright, Stephen Belber specializes in pieces where nothing is quite what it seems for any length of time (Tape and Match are among his productions) and also writes for Law and Order. His new play, A Small, Melodramatic Story, a Labyrinth Theater Company production playing at the Public Theatre’s little Shiva Theatre space, feels like an attempt to mesh a procedural with the poetic. Coincidences and pretentiousness overwhelm the second half of the 90-minute show but I was fairly absorbed for the first 45 minutes, wondering where it might be going, as Belber slowly sets the wheels in motion. O (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a widow whose husband Burt, a Gulf War veteran, had killed himself, fends off friendly advances from Keith (Lee Sellars), a National Security Archive employee who thinks the suicide may have been brought on by anti-nerve gas pills given to the soldiers. He introduces O to a policeman acquaintance, Perry (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a relationship that sparks, much to Keith’s agitation. Digging for the truth surrounding Burt’s death, Keith Googles up some dirt on Perry’s involvement in the killing of a Salvadoran teenager, years earlier, and dishes it out for O. Her fact-finding opens a rift with Perry and introduces a fourth character, the slain Salvadoran’s brother, Cleo (Carlo Alban), which has grave and—truth be told—predictable consequences.

It takes a lot of talk to get A Small, Melodramatic Story up and running, though once it hits its stride it has nowhere that profound to go. Lucie Tiberghien directs as briskly as possible, but Alban is so shifty and peculiar as Cleo you know exactly what he’s after as soon as he’s introduced, defeating suspense. (Why does he need O’s sleuthing, anyway, when so much about Perry, including his identity, is already on the public record?) Belber also infects O with monologue-itis, where she sits in a chair or window and utters high-flown thoughts, regarding the uses of knowledge to “fix the unfixable, transcend the ungodly, unstick the stuck heart.” And she wonders why she has a hard time getting dates.

The featureless white set, by Takeshi Kata, lacks versatility. It does OK suggesting a dull office environment in the D.C. area, with putty-colored filing cabinets and a few skylights and windows on the ceilings and floor, but Matthew Richards’ changeable lighting doesn’t make it work any better as a bedroom or restaurant. Its use would seem to be more symbolic, as when sheer white light blasts its surface toward the play’s close, or when all illumination fades, leaving O alone at her window—the concept seems to be that the truth is hitting home, but there is no home onstage for it to hit. Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes add a little color; the sound, by Elizabeth Rhodes, is functional. [PRG supplied the lights and Ins & Outs the audio.] If only A Small, Melodramatic Story had been smaller and more concentrated, and less melodramatic.—Robert Cashill

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