Shaw's dark comedy 'Heartbreak House' gets a magical revival

Heartbreak House. Play by Bernard Shaw. Starring Rex Harrison, Rosemary Harris, Amy Irving, Philip Bosco, Dana Ivey, Stephen McHattie, Jan Miner, Bill Moor, William Prince. Directed by Anthony Page.

The Circle in the Square has mounted a richly rewarding production of Bernard Shaw's nearly apocalyptic ''Heartbreak House.'' Shaw subtitled the darkling comedy ''A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.'' The inspiration may have been Chekhov.

The English themes and Shavian variations reflect Shaw's views on such subjects as the British class system, capitalism, the decline of empire, and the threat of Armageddon. Who would argue today that his speculations on a threatening holocaust were mere socialist doom-saying?

The facade of witty social comedy is merely the form for an allegory that begins with the title itself. The room - handsomely designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg - in which most of the conversation occurs, is described by Shaw as resembling ''the after part of an old fashioned high-pooped ship with a stern gallery. . . .''

The house is haunted by Captain Shotover, his family and guests. William Irvine (in ''The Universe of G. B. S.'') described Shotover as Sir Francis Drake ''when he looks into the past'' and Bernard Shaw ''when he looks into the future.'' Bushily bearded Rex Harrison captains the allegorical ship of state with the authority of a retired, if sometimes senile, old salt, who nevertheless can suddenly recapture his power to command. Shuffling aimlessly about, storing away his dynamite, Shotover can often be as sharp as he is blunt. Furthermore, Mr. Harrison leavens the captain's normal gruffness with a tender quality that can be very touching.

Rosemary Harris (the Lady Utterword in the London production in which she and Mr. Harrison appeared) has been cast for Broadway as Mrs. Hesione Hushabye. Dressed in flowing robes, Miss Harris plays the chatelaine of the eccentric establishment with humorous warmth and splendor. Sharing Hesione's captivating effect on men and trailing clouds of empire glory is Dana Ivey as the heartbreaking Ariadne Utterword, with no heart of her own to break. Miss Ivey revels in the heights of Shavian high comedy.

As Ellie Dunn, the enchanting Amy Irving accomplishes the tricky transitions from romantic naivete to heartbreak to cold calculation and finally to what Ellie calls ''the end of happiness and the beginning of peace.'' Philip Bosco can be wonderfully explosive as Boss Mangan, the Napoleon of industry, whose heart is not, after all, as hard as manganese. Stephen McHattie's Hector Hushabye is a knight errant manque, who philanders, duels with shadows, and fabricates heroic deeds.

The cast, directed by Anthony Page, also includes William Prince as Mazzini Dunn, the erstwhile liberal freedom fighter-turned-industrial manager (but why a Mazzini with an American accent?); Bill Moor, who gives his actor's all to Randall the Rotter's absurd tantrums; and Jan Miner, who bustles about solicitously as Nurse Guinness. The designs by Jane Greenwood (picturesque 1919 costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting), and Paul Huntley (wigs) enhance the revival of this great, magical, and beautiful play.

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