Although passionately insistent about his Irish identity, George Bernard Shaw lived in England for the bulk of his adult life, and Heartbreak House, like most of his plays, is populated by decidedly English characters. The contemporary British playwright Simon Mendes da Costa may be English-born and -bred, but his name suggests a Sephardic heritage, and the characters in his play Losing Louie—or at least in the Americanized version of it that has opened Manhattan Theatre Club’s season at the Biltmore—are ostensibly Jewish. And the two plays share a literary ancestor very far from Ireland, Iberia, Englishness, or Jewishness, namely Anton Chekhov. Shaw’s play, first produced in 1920 after he had struggled with its writing through most of World War I, is an attempted act of emulation, subtitled (though not in the program for the current Roundabout revival) “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” Da Costa’s play is another in the long line of commercial comedies that have exploited Chekhov’s technique of using naturalistic details to scramble comedy and tragedy together, producing a general state of pained laughter that sends the audience home happy not to be the characters.
This, of course, is the antithesis of Chekhov’s own intention: He wanted to get the audience so involved with the characters that they would begin to see the emptiness and evasion of their own lives; he succeeded so well that today we can all too easily spot the Chekhov moments we live through. Though he employed a fair number of Chekhovian tactics, Shaw got very different results, because his whole approach to theater differs so radically from Chekhov’s. Shaw’s characters are only realistic on some higher plane where human beings must be a bit larger than life; they are wonderful, extraordinary, and delightful, but you’ll never meet anyone remotely like them on land or sea. And “sea” is indeed the operative word in Heartbreak House: The country house where it takes place is shaped like a ship (a notion of which John Lee Beatty’s set takes surprisingly little advantage), occupied by the family of a retired sea captain and their weekend guests. The fluidity of the play, as Mary McCarthy pointed out in her review of Orson Welles’s 1934 production, is its essence: Nobody in Heartbreak House is exactly what he or she seems; no scene in it retains a stable nature for more than two minutes. The plot is a clutch of unresolvable situations, often settled by gestures that make no sense; the climax is brought about by an act of war, though there has been virtually no mention earlier that a war is going on.
Shaw also has a faith, which Chekhov disdains, in the power of ideas. His characters cling to them, explore them, debate them, and often act passionately on them. Like many of Shaw’s later works, Heartbreak House is streaked with darkness, despair, even desperation. But his darker visions, you might say, come out of the failure of ideas to help humanity; Chekhov despairs over human beings’ failure to help themselves. The mixture of Shaw’s own sensibility with the one he attempts to borrow from Chekhov makes Heartbreak House an unusually dense and unusually inchoate piece. Like some rich bottled sauce, it has to be constantly shaken up or the elements will separate out, destroying the flavor.
Robin Lefevre’s Roundabout production, efficient and lucid, has as little truck as possible with either the play’s Chekhovian emotional flux or its tidal fluidities of structure. Only within the quicksilver speeches, crisply spoken by a generally able cast, do its eerie, dangerous veerings become apparent. The early scenes, which Lefevre misguidedly pushes toward the high-speed chatter tone of 1920s comedy, as if Shaw were a clone of Lonsdale or Coward, come off weakest. But as the fevered reversals roll on, the actors gradually find their sea legs; Swoosie Kurtz and Byron Jennings, as the seductive chatelaine Hesione and her wayward husband, register with particular effectiveness. The gifted Lily Rabe is oddly miscast as the heroine Ellie Dunn, who first seems like a vulnerable ingenue, then gradually reveals herself to be the play’s most strong-minded figure. Rabe, a tall, sturdy gal, strides onstage as though she were already captaining the ship, so that her triumph over the crass tycoon she’s being forced to marry, Mangan (broadly caricatured by Bill Camp), comes as no surprise. Fortunately, Shaw’s constantly transitory script holds so many surprises that tossing a few overboard hardly matters.
Nothing matters at all about Losing Louie (of which Lefevre, ironically, directed the original London production). It merely proves that exploiting the mingled comedy and pathos of human failure is much easier than turning them, as Chekhov did, into dramatic poetry. Da Costa’s play, structured with relentless, plodding ingenuity, takes place in one bedroom during two different eras, as we watch a schmucky lawyer (Scott Cohen) create, in his youth, a hideous familial mess for his two grown sons (Mark Linn-Baker and Matthew Arkin) to clean up after his death decades later. Transposing the action from England to Westchester hasn’t helped: The constantly rainy weather, like the endless grotty jokes about sex, bathrooms, and funerals, belongs to the mother country’s cultural apparatus. Jerry Zaks’s production, steady and rather stolid, gives little buoyancy to the script’s doggedness, slowing down just where the repetitive bits beg for speed. Only Michelle Pawk and Patricia Kalember, as the sons’ spouses, proffer the individuality and charm that might have warmed up the arid circuitry of this elaborately pointless little gizmo.