April 19, 2019

At Heartbreak House, Things are Not as They Seem


—But how can you love a liar?

—I don't know. But you can, fortunately. Otherwise there wouldn't be much love in the world.

The third play in a dynamic summer at the Theatricum Botanicum amphitheater in Topanga promises wit, wisdom and laughter and delivers a tour de force, featuring George Bernard Shaw’s British parlor comedy, Heartbreak House.

First performed in1920 at New York’s Garrick Theater, the play sheds light on an endangered species of British society: the cultured, idle, leisured European upper class, a group which, at the time, was rapidly disappearing as signs of the First World War loomed in the distance.

Humorously documenting the end of an era where the lazy rich ran the country, the plot shifts and turns its magic throughout. There is much to love in this production, cleverly directed by Ellen Geer. Every line is quotable. Every phrase is both absurd and ringing of truth.

“When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to endure them. But when they are away, we console ourselves for their absence by dwelling on their vices,” says Hesione Hushabye (Melora Marshall).

The premise is this: An unconventional upper-class British family is giving what promises to be an “infamous” dinner party hosted by the stylishly bohemian Hesione, her womanizing cad of a husband, Hector, and the screwball patriarch Captain Shotover, who collects dynamite and drinks massive quantities of rum.

Party guests include Ellie Dunn (Willow Geer); her fiancé, a business mogul aptly named Boss Mangan (Alan Blumenfeld); Ellie’s father, a bumbling idiot named Mazzini Dunn (David Stifel); Hesione’s long-estranged sister, Ariadne Utterword (Susan Angelo); her brother-in-law, Randall (Aaron Hendry); and a cagey-like-a-fox would-be burglar (Ed Grion).

Through a series of plot twists, we discover Ellie is actually in love with Hesione’s husband. Characters lust and chase in a parody of British society in its last glory days. Vapid people living vapid lives, seek desperately for meaning.

Captain Shotover asks Ellie an intriguing question about mortality, “How much does your soul eat?

Ellie naively replies, “Oh, a lot. It eats music and pictures and books and mountains and lakes and beautiful things to wear and nice people to be with.”

Although the plot is deceptively simple, it is the witticism that drives the story, as well as the many over-the-top, gut-wrenching comedic performances by the acting troupe.

“You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race,” claims playwright George Bernard Shaw.

“There is something odd about this house” muses Ellie, an innocent ingénue from the lower classes with ambitions of grandiose proportions, played earnestly by Willow Geer, who sends her emotions through the roof and under the floorboards with grace and ease in an altogether bone-chilling portrayal.

But, the character that drives this ship of fools is none other than Melora Marshall, who has a blast of a time playfully portraying Hesione with all the vim and vigor of Dorothy Parker. She explores grand entrances and exits with the astonishment of a virtuoso, expelling cutting lines from her mouth like fast silver bullets that know their target, illustrated when she accuses Ellie of being fickle in her desires:

“Why do women want other women's husbands,” asks Ellie.

“Why do horse thieves want a broken-in one instead of a wild one,” Hesione retorts.

Other notable performances are Aaron Hendry as Randall, who turns being a henpecked puppy dog and lovesick paramour into an art form.

Despite what one might expect from a minor character, Katherine James’ portrayal of Nurse Guiness dominates her scenes in this incredible household, indiscriminately calling everyone “Duckie” and “Lovey,” yet she is the one voice of reason during a crisis: “The police have telephoned to say we'll be summoned if we don't put that light out: it can be seen for miles.”

Other standouts are Mark Lewis as Hector Hushabye, a fickle man who shamelessly charms one woman after another without an ounce of guilt. His amazing stunts onstage demonstrate his character’s flexibility—getting in and out of lotus position while wearing Lawrence of Arabia robes and curly-toed slippers ala the Turkish style of the era.

Captain Shotover, acted by William Dennis Hunt, is a booming force to be reckoned with and carries the most powerful insights about the value system of the British upper classes.

Alan Blumenfeld as Boss Mangan spreads his own brand of despicability, jumping through hoops to woo money and women, at one point frozen in time by hypnosis, in another scene, stripping off his clothes. He is the blustering businessman who cannot be quite as powerful a man as he imagines.

“Shall I turn up the light for you,” asks Hector.

“No, give me deeper darkness. Money is not made in the light,” Captain Shotover replies.

Heartbreak House is also a place where nothing is as it seems and in the end, true personalities are revealed. The house is a ship with an unstable captain at its helm, leading everyone on board into the smashing rocks of war that is ahead of them, disguised as a jolly ride through the countryside.

“Navigation. Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned,” Shotover proclaims.

Performances of Heartbreak House run through Sept. 30 at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N Topanga Canyon Blvd., 90290; (310) 455-3723; theatricum.com

Tickets: $33 (lower tier), $20 (upper tier); Seniors, students, equity: $20/$18; Children 7-12: $10; under 6, Free.

Picnickers are welcome before and after shows. Snacks are available at intermission at the Hamlet Hut. The audience is advised to dress warmly in layers (since summer evenings can get chilly). Bring pillows or cushions for the bench seating. There will be one ten-minute intermission during this performance.