The roundabout theater has followed its highly successful run of "A Month in the Country" with a laudable production of "Heartbreak House." When Shaw described his dark, difficult, and prophetic comedy as "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes, "he was thinking of Chekov (specially "the Cherry Orchard") rather than Turgenev. In the event, of course, this great play about "cultured, leisured Europe before the war" is all Shaw -- the with and wisdom, the dogma, the lucidity and paradox, the contrariness and impassioned rhetoric.
"Heartbreak House" assembles an assortment of allegorical English characters in the shiplike Sussex home of octogenarian Captain Shotover (Frank Hamilton). Contrasted with the rudely cantankerous old salt are his two daughters: the carelessly hospitable Mrs. Hesione Hushabye (Rachel Gurney) and her brittlely aristocratic sister, Lady Utterwood (Louise Troy), whose absent husband has helped keep the sun from setting on the British Empire. The resident males are Hesione's philandering spouse (Michael Lipton) and Lady Utterwood's dilettante but adoring brother-in-law (Robert Moberly).
The guests include Ellie Dunn (Giulia Pagano), who progresses from disenchantment through heartbreak to raised consciousness under the Captain's guidance; Ellie's father (Robert Nichols), a Victorian liberal who has failed at business; and Boss Mangan (David Sabin), a blandly devouring capitalist who ruined Dunn and now contemplates marrying Ellie. To represent the lower social orders, Shaw adds a cosy cockney domestic (Barbara Lester) and a burglar (Stephen Daley), whose noisy breaking and entering permits him to beg rather than steal from his victims.
The production directed at Roundabout State One by George Keathley is strongest where it counts most. Miss Pagano is appealing, clear-eyed, and at times extraordinarily touching as Ellie makes the transition from timid stranger to self-confident New Woman. Mr. Hamilton's Shotover, shrewd and razor-sharp beneath his doddering fuzziness, delivers Shaw's thunderbolts with thundering sonority. The scenes between Shotover and Ellie are among the most impressive in a revival which serves Shaw with humor, intelligence, and feeling. Roger Mooney has designed a house fit for a sea captain and the handsome costumes are by Andrew B. Marlay.
Shotover's forecast that England, "the soul's prison,. . . Will strike and sink and split" has not come to pass. Yet a second world war and the loss of empire have underlined the hazards of the century Shaw was envisioning. And no one today would deny that the statesman's paramount need of the hour is to know the business of navigation.