The Surprising Swoosie

Special Features   The Surprising Swoosie Swoosie Kurtz, tackling Shaw for the first time in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Heartbreak House, likes to shake things up.
Swoosie Kurtz
Swoosie Kurtz

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Nature's way of dealing with unhealthy conditions is unfortunately not one that compels us to conduct a solvent hygiene on a cash basis. She demoralizes us with long credits and reckless overdrafts, and then pulls us up cruelly with catastrophic bankruptcies...

This is what has happened in our political hygiene. Political science has been as recklessly neglected as sanitary science was in the days of Charles the Second. In international relations diplomacy has been a boyishly lawless affair of family intrigues, commercial and territorial brigandage, torpors of pseudo-goodnature produced by laziness, and spasms of ferocious activity produced by terror.

- George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Heartbreak House, June 1919

If you had been eating dinner in a restaurant called Orso on West 46th Street in the early summer of this year, you would have perhaps played witness to a courtship in progress.

"I was back in New York for a while," says Swoosie Kurtz — the super-versatile, super-skilled actress most recently and brilliantly on the stage here in Bryony Lavery's Frozen even while accumulating Emmy nominations from two years on the tube in Showtime's "Huff" — "when my agent, David Kalodner of William Morris, who lives, breathes and eats theatre, called and said: 'Robin Lefevre, who's going to direct Heartbreak House for the Roundabout [Theatre] Company, wants to take you to dinner.'"

The Swoose, as her friends call her, had never met Robin Lefevre, a craftsman from Britain whose impressive theatrical credits include the New York productions of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me and Brian Friel's Aristocrats. "He took me to Orso," she is saying now on the phone from L.A. "He reeled off this incredible Heartbreak House ensemble of actors. I was dazzled by that and by the play and what it says about the war." The First World War, that is, which ends Shaw's Chekhovian scrutiny of the longueurs of self-involved privilege with a thunderclap. "Robin Lefevre seduced me into it."

That ensemble at the American Airlines Theatre is headed by Philip Bosco as mad old Captain Shotover, in and around whose domain in the British countryside — a mansion built to resemble an old-fashioned sailing ship — Shaw's darkling comedy takes place. Ms. Kurtz plays Hesione Hushabye, one of the captain's two beautiful, irresistible, imperious daughters. The other, ultra-flirtatious Lady Utterword, is portrayed by Laila Robins. Level-headed Mrs. Hushabye's overriding concern throughout Act I is to prevent her protégé, spunky young and impoverished Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe), from keeping herself in gloves by giving soul and body in marriage to Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), a crass, self-made London businessman more than twice Ellie's age. Ellie has meanwhile fallen in love with a good-looking, swaggering fabricator of tall tales (Byron Jennings) who turns out to be Hesione Hushabye's husband.

Which takes us to the core of the play, or the core of Ms. Kurtz's take on the play. "I think that at the age I'm at," says the actress who was born in Omaha, Nebraska, "I appreciate it infinitely more than years ago, when I believe I read it as a beginning actress because somebody told me I should play Ellie. When you're young, you think everything's black and white. As you get older, things get murkier. Gray areas."

The long list of Swoosie Kurtz's credits seems to lack anything by George Bernard Shaw. Are you a Shaw virgin?

"This is so funny. I was going to say to you I'm a virgin in this role and in this play. I've done O'Neill and I've done Molière, but don't think I've ever done any Shaw. When I was at LAMDA [the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art], we did Shakespeare and Chekhov and touched on Shaw, but nobody's ever paid me to do Shaw. So much of my body of work has been new plays by new playwrights [Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Terrence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang, to name a few].

"There's something epic and personal about this play, with its overriding themes like Love vs. Money. But as an actress, you can't play a theme. I like to kind of surprise myself in a role — myself first of all. I like it when I'm a little terrified. When I never have a clue. I trust that feeling. It used to worry me . . . but now I say, 'No, that's a good thing, Swoose. That's a good thing.'"

However captivating Hesione Hushabye may be, she is also — is she not? — more than a bit cruel, demeaning Boss Mangan, behind his back and to his face, as an "object," a mere "thing." The poor slob is finally driven to lash back, and hard, shaming Hesione to her face with a terrible truth: "There are things no decent woman would do to a man - like a man hitting a woman in the breast."

"I don't know," says Kurtz. "What, for me, saves her from being cruel is her absolute candor, saying what she feels — and not understanding people who don't say what they feel. There is no deviousness in her."

And damn little in the woman who's taken on the challenge of becoming her.

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