The dazzling, diminutive production of “Heartbreak House,” now on Theatre Row, draws its emotional heft from several sources. It starts, of course, with the play and Shaw’s passionate condemnation of Britain’s institutional and cultural status quo that created the conditions for the first World War and then treated that war merely as a hiccup rather than the transformative event that should have awakened people to a new world but did not. Shaw wraps his polemics in characters for whom, however symbolic, an audience comes to care. Then there is Shaw’s nod to Chekhov in creating a darker domestic comedy, like “The Cherry Orchard,” where the characters are blinded to the world around them, making this one of his bleaker social commentaries.
David Staller’s inspired concept takes all of that one step further, set the play in the basement of London’s Ambassador Theatre during the Blitz in World War II. The audience and the company seek safety, and the actors, who had been performing a silly review when the bombs began to fall, decide to perform “Heartbreak House” to entertain the audience until the all-clear sounds. The metaphor is subtle but potent, underscoring that this danger is the result of lessons going unheeded. With an out-of-touch population enthralled by appearances and the illusion of the self-made man, it’s clear Shaw’s warnings are still disregarded a century later.
There isn’t much of a plot here. A group of people are brought together in Hesione and Hector Hushabye’s country home for a dinner party. Ellie Dunn is a young woman who, feeling an obligation to save her family, is marrying businessman Boss Mangan for his money. Hesione, a bohemian, tries to convince her not to throw herself away for money. Hesione’s sister, Lady Ariadne Utterwood, arrives to provide the voice of the clueless aristocracy. Hector tells tall tales and touches Ellie’s romantic side. Ellie’s father, Mazzini, is a kind man devoted to the arts who hopes for Ellie’s profitable marriage. The whole affair is overseen by Hesione’s father, Captain Shotover, who is long on ship metaphors and a commenting presence throughout. Over the course of the evening, it all goes to pot. Ellie is politicized, Mangan is revealed as a fraud, Mazzini, the common man, is shown to be the true brains behind the push, and the aristocracy remains as clueless as ever.
What makes this production so compelling is that director Staller highlights the human comedy of it all. Shaw can often be heavy-handed, but this production sparkles, rendering the social commentary all the more harrowing.
The cast is stellar. Karen Ziemba as Hesione gives a strong, centered performance that grounds the piece. Kimberly Immanuel as Ellie plays her as a classic Shavian woman, unleashing a searing focus when she is awakened to her power. Alison Fraser is simply delightful as the dizzy Lady Ariadne, and Tom Hewitt is spectacularly blustery as Hector. Lenny Wolpe as Mazzini and Derek Smith as Mangan are both quite fine. The wonderful Jeff Hiller takes on a variety of small roles with his inimitable comic style.
Even in the tiny Lion Theater, the production values are high thanks to Brian Prather’s terrific set, Barbara A. Bell’s costumes that, pulled from a trunk for the moment, are just right, and Christina Watanabe’s economical lighting.
The heartbreak at the end of the play is surprisingly moving as the bombing stops and life goes on. It calls to mind the dichotomy of another Shaw insight from “Major Barbara:” “You have learnt something. That always feels, at first, as if you had lost something.” Prepare to have your heart touched — and broken — by this exquisite revival.
Not since Bill Irwin has there been a physical comedian — aka “clown” — with the soul, sophistication and storytelling genius of Richard Saudek. His extraordinary piece “Beep Boop,” now at Here Arts Center, is a multimedia exploration of the role technology plays in our lives and how in a connected world we may be more isolated than ever before.
Over a brisk 75 minutes, Saudek takes us into the depths of a character chained to his devices, desperately seeking contact and yet fearful of the outside world. His amazingly expressive physicality is often breathtaking as it recalls animation styles of the 1950s and ‘60s, notably the UPA style, based in a philosophy of free expression, that used limited, monochromatic backgrounds, specific movement language, and exaggerated forms.
The tension between Saudek’s allusion to that style and his narrative of a man trapped by — and sometimes literally inside — the all-consuming technology gives the narrative resonance and a highly relatable poignancy. Almost from the outset, we feel connected to this character and his plight.
Under Wes Grantom’s direction with original composition and sound design by Jesse Novak, this is a revelatory and compelling piece of work that is not to be missed.
Sharr White’s new play “The True,” getting its premiere at The New Group, is both fascinating and frustrating. It’s fascinating because a magnificent company brings this tale of Albany politics to life with passion and nuance. The finely etched characters, even in the smaller roles, are consistently interesting as the swirl of politics consumes them all. It’s frustrating because for all the drama — actual and emotional — at the end, we’re back where we started. That may be a commentary on politics, but it’s too obscure to be dramatically satisfying. It’s a wonderfully performed character study tautly directed by Scott Elliott, but it’s not clear why we’ve gone on this campaign.
Polly Noonan is an operative in the upstate Democratic Party. She’s a staunch defender of Mayor Erastus Corning and is playing all kinds of political games to keep him in power. She’s profane, aggressive, and overwhelming, leaving those who can’t keep up in her wake as she wheels and deals. Rumors of an affair between Polly and Corning are unfounded, but that doesn’t stop the gossips. Even Polly’s husband, Peter, who tries to stay out of the fray, suffers collateral damage as the family and the politics cut a swath through everyone’s life. The play is reminiscent of David Hare’s “Plenty,” where a dynamic, driven woman, Susan Traherne, wreaks emotional havoc on everyone in her life. “Plenty” succeeds where “The True” falls short in that Hare delved into the sources of Susan’s neuroses and what caused her to be so destructive — almost against her will. White, while creating a similar character in Polly, gives us no such complexity and that limits our connection to her.
Still, the cast is wonderful. Edie Falco as Polly shines. She simply absorbs the stage as her character sucks all the air out of every room. Each moment of her performance is richly detailed. Peter Scolari as Peter is a wonderful counterpoint to Falco’s ferocity. He’s gentle but not a pushover as he negotiates life with a force of nature. Michael McKean is excellent as Corning, who has to distance himself from Polly for his political and personal salvation, but ultimately can’t resist her. If there was at one time sexual tension between Corning and Polly, it’s long in the past, and both McKean and Falco play that marvelously. The rest of the company — Austin Cauldwell, Glenn Fitzgerald, and John Pankow — play small roles, planets on a collision course with Polly’s orbit.
Ultimately, “The True” is very like contemporary politics. Watching it can be entertaining, engaging, and affecting. For theater, however, “The True” would have to deliver more than surface situations and characters to get my wholehearted vote.
HEARTBREAK HOUSE | The Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Sep. 29: Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. & Sat. at 2 p.m. | $69 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission
BEEP BOOP | Here Arts Center | 145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St. | Through Oct. 7: Tue.-Sat. at 7 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $25 at here.org/shows/detail/2014/ or 212-352-3101 | Seventy-five mins., no intermission
THE TRUE | The New Group at Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Oct. 28: Tue.-Fri at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $30-$125 at thenewgroup.org or 212-279-4200 | One hr., 45 mins., no intermission