Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” loaded with the author’s views on social issues and set in 1914 Sussex, England, doesn’t need any gift-wrapping. Yet this production by the Gingold Theatrical Group, with direction by David Staller, has packaged it with a 1940 World War II setting in the basement of London’s Ambassadors Theatre, where actors and other theater folk have taken shelter during the blitz.
To make the point, the audience, which also is assumed to be seeking safety, is greeted by cast members who encourage a sing-along before deciding to put on a show to pass the time until all is clear. Guess what? The decision is made that the play to be done is “Heartbreak House,” whereupon the group launches into the work itself, with a midway break to emphasize the staging circumstance, and a similar final note ater the play’s explosive conclusion.
How well you take to the gimmickry may at least partly determine how well you relate to this mounting of the play. Shaw’s dramatic ruminations often have the wit to leap across years and make one think that nothing much has really changed. In addition, he creates colorful characters to reveal his thoughts, and in the present case, an entertaining cast delivers the main course tastily despite the unnecessary trimmings.
Karen Ziemba is a special standout as Hesione Hushabye, who is married to Tom Hewitt as Hector Hushabye, a dashing man about town not known for being a faithful husband. She has invited into their home a young friend, Ellie Dunn, colorfully and smartly played by Kimberly Immanuel, who is planning to marry a man believed to be wealthy even though she has been harboring a crush on Hector. The plot has its convolutions, which serve to set up Shaw’s disdain for profit motives and women being reduced to wifely status. It turns out that Ellie has some important views on the matter.
Hesione’s father in the family country home is elderly Captain Shotover, played with bluster by the excellent Raphael Nash Thompson. His other daughter, Lady Ariadne Utterword, portrayed by scene-stealer Alison Fsazer, arrives, and Fraser has perfected a tight-voiced, haughtiness that often is hilarious and fits Shaw’s mocking at efforts to appear so upper-class.
Lenny Wolpe as Ellie’s businessman father is naïve in his financial dealings and is cynically manipulated by his employer, Derek Smith as Boss Mangan, representing Shaw’s portrait of greed. Mangan is the obnoxious man whom Ellie is slated to marry.
Jeff Hiller does duty in multiple roles, often amusing, including one as a burglar. While the play is certainly not Shaw’s best and it gets excessively talky at points, it does flash wit and has the ability to be entertaining when properly acted, as is mostly the case here. It certainly doesn’t need the awkward wrap-around it gets in this effort to be different. At the Lion Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed September 10, 2018.