That’s one big step for David Staller, and one giant leap for his audience.
From 2006-2107, Staller directed once-a-month readings of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, some as famous as PGYMALION, others as obscure as THE MAN OF DESTINY.
Patrons first filled The Players Club and then Symphony Space to see “Project Shaw.” Never mind that actors were holding their scripts and only occasionally taking a step or two across the bare stage. The plays were the things, and GBS’ mammoth oeuvre was rich fodder for Staller and his top-line performers: Marian Seldes, Fritz Weaver, George S. Irving, Michele Pawk and other Tony-winners were among the performers who gave their all on these monthly Mondays.
Six years ago, Staller started doing co-productions, too, with a help from other theater companies around town. Now, though, he’s on his own as his Gingold Group (named after his ol’ friend Hermione) is presenting a bang-up production of Shaw’s 1920 hit HEARTBREAK HOUSE on Theatre Row.
And while it’s one thing to get celebrated actors to read from a script for one night, it’s quite another to enlist them for a weeks-long run in which they must memorize dialogue and blocking. Staller’s convinced eight of them to do it, though — top-level talent on 42nd Street.
It’s not business as usual for the play. The “Setting/Time” note in the program tells us “First we find ourselves in the basement of the Ambassadors’ Theatre, London, September, 1940. Then we’re magically transported to Captain Shotover’s villa in Sussex, England, September, 1914.”
So Staller adds some dialogue here where actors and audience who were to experience HEARTBREAK HOUSE in the actual theater must now repair below because of threatened air raids. The show must go on, and the cast is going to zap our troubles away by performing the show down there.
Well, that’s one way to get around designing an expensive set befitting, as Shaw had it, “a room which has been built so as to resemble the after part of an old-fashioned high-pooped ship, with a stern gallery.” Designer Brian Prather instead gave us the remnants of shows past, a bust of Shakespeare, a piano in the corner and everything else chock-a-block. All that glisters is a very nice gold-plated tea service.
Hesione Hushabye is visiting her father; so is her sister who’s now Lady Ariadne Utterword, who hasn’t come home for years – which hasn’t bothered paterfamilias Captain Shotover; he believes “The natural term of the affection of the human animal for its offspring is six years.”
Also visiting is Ellie Dunn, who tells Hesione she’s met the most wonderful man with whom she’s very much in love. That causes a problem, for her father Mazzini has chosen entrepreneur Boss Mangan for her. As if that’s not enough, Ellie soon learns that the man who’s enraptured and captured her heart is actually Hesione’s husband Hector.
Sounds like a romantic triangle show, no? In fact, no. Shaw, as always, has more on his mind than mere love. He wants to show us high society that fiddles while Britain is about to burn. This message dovetails very nicely with Staller’s new concept.
Karen Ziemba might not immediately come to mind when one is casting Hesione; after all, in her 18 appearance on and off-Broadway (starting as an understudy in NUNSENSE), she’s only done two plays – neither of which afforded her the leads. She’s up to the formidable task, though, and in fact avoids the big pitfalls into which I’ve seen four actresses before her tumble. Ziemba doesn’t just play the grandeur; instead, she concentrates on the humanity that Hesione certainly has. Moreover, watch her eyes in a scene with Mazzini; the way she works them must rival Norma Desmond’s self-proclaimed skill of what she can do with hers.
Lest Hector Hushabye be deemed an old stick, Tom Hewitt does superbly in a grippingly good scene in which he dances by himself and then swordfights solo. That spurred the audience to applaud.
Alison Fraser gives a stiff upper chin to Lady Ariadne Utterword. Early on, she hilariously delivers a speech where she’s going a mile-a-minute in a zone where there’s a 25-mph speed limit. Utterword loves to speak rapidly, and if the other characters on stage don’t understand her, well, no problem; as long as she has the chance to talk – and has the floor – she’s happy.
Raphael Nash Thompson is Captain Shotover. Shall we actually call him the grand paterfamilias? The absence of a hyphen tells you that he doesn’t have grandchildren (at least none are mentioned) but “grand” does turn out to be the adjective that best describes his performance.
Thompson proves that experience is indeed the best teacher while not seeming overly world-weary about it. Shotover knows his days are numbered – they’re probably now in the three-digit range — but he’s not dead yet and in fact is still very much in the game.
Boss Mangan needs someone rough around the edges and a little rougher inside. With his snub nose that would have made him welcome in Warner Brothers’ gangster films of the ‘40s, Derek Smith is ideal. This actor has spent most of this century as Scar in THE LION KING, so theatergoers who felt that once was enough for that show (or saw it early on) haven’t been given the opportunity to experience Smith’s natural on-stage appeal. He gets the opening line in Act Two that’s an unadulterated truism; last week he got a nice laugh from it.
Shaw is responsible for the now-famous quotation “Youth is wasted on the young.” If he were around today and had the chance to see Kimberly Immanuel as his Ellie Dunn, he might have felt that he’d spoken too soon. Immanuel, the youngest in the cast, holds stage wonderfully with the veterans. She’s saucy when she has to be, naïve when that’s called for, and utterly engaging when she shows she has a head on her shoulders and a very nice brain inside it.
Jeff Hiller has plenty to do, for he’s been entrusted with three roles that add up to a peck of stage time. He has the most fun playing Nurse Guinness, especially in a scene where he must also portray The Burglar who leaves with little but leaves us with a great deal to ponder. (He gets by with more than a little help from two castmates who become de facto dressers.)
Much of the time Hiller is Randall Utterword, who’s Ariadne’s brother-in-law but wishes he were more than that. Hiller shows a man who’s more ardent than forward, as manners demanded back then.
Lenny Wolpe is Mazzini Dunn. At first you might infer that Shaw included him simply to add a deferential type who isn’t meant to make much of an impression. And yet, Wolpe indeed makes one both in these early scenes and when his character is asked to grow as the two-hour-and-forty-minute play moves on.
Perhaps the most knowing response that the audience gave – some burst of laughter, some grunts of truth – occurred after Fraser said “The important thing is not to have the last word, but to have your own way.” Yes, indeed — and yet, how gratifying to know that David Staller is far from his last word and is getting his own way with his own wonderful alliance with (as he chummily calls him in the program) Bernard Shaw.