PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Heartbreak House—Raining on Shaw's Tirade

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Heartbreak House—Raining on Shaw's Tirade
The rains came, relentlessly, Oct. 11, and so too did the first-nighters, religiously, to the American Airlines Theatre, seeking shelter in Shaw's Heartbreak House. For solace, they had to go elsewhere. The Bearded Wonder gives an audience a lot to chew on, and this opus—written in gloomy anticipation of World War I but published after—provided this in abundance since the pendulum has swung and it's now rumblingly relevant again, even more than it was in its last Broadway revival in 1983, when Rex Harrison ruled this unruly roost as the patriarchial but never very paternal Captain Shotover.
Philip Bosco; Swoosie Kurtz; Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick; Laila Robins; David Rabe, Lily Rabe, Jill Clayburgh amd Michael Rabe; Frances Sternhagen; John Christopher Jones, Gareth Saxe and Bill Camp; Blythe Danner.
Philip Bosco; Swoosie Kurtz; Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick; Laila Robins; David Rabe, Lily Rabe, Jill Clayburgh amd Michael Rabe; Frances Sternhagen; John Christopher Jones, Gareth Saxe and Bill Camp; Blythe Danner. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Philip Bosco, a blustery Boss Mangan in that production, has been upgraded to the graybeard who now lords over the manor in a dithering, indifferent sort of way. And, because Shaw permits a field day for those self-involved underlings about him, Roundabout has rounded up a colorfully eclectic cast: Swoosie Kurtz and Laila Robins as the captain's daughters, Byron Jennings and Gareth Saxe as their respective (although not necessarily) spouses, Lily Rabe as a relative innocent in the house and Bill Camp as her wannabe-suitor—all playing Shavian musical beds, blithely oblivious that they're all skating on the brink of disaster.

This cast is catnip for other actors, and Roundabout wisely remembered its own in inviting former favorite employees to the opening and the party afterwards, held at the Marriott Marquis. Most of the Roundabout cast rehearsing Suddenly, Last Summer, opening Nov. 15 at the Laura Pels, took the night off and gave some glitter to the event—Blythe Danner, Carla Gugino, director Mark Brokaw, Becky Ann Baker, Wayne Wilcox, Sandra Shipley, Karen Walsh and the lobotomist in reluctant residency, played by Gale Harold, whose only previous New York theatre work was an Austin Pendleton play waaay Off-Broadway called Uncle Bob. This, he has discerned, is different.

There was a smattering of Twelve Angry Men, no doubt in support of their Tony nominee (Bosco): Robert Clohessy and, arriving late from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, John Pankow. The doubting Juror #8, Boyd Gaines, came with news: "I'm in negotiations for Journey's End," he said. "It's the same production that was done on the West End about two years ago. It will have the same director, David Grindley. It's for Broadway, and they're looking for a theatre. At first, it was going in in late February, but now there's some chance it may go sooner." R. C. Sheriff's 1929's largely autobiographical World War I drama will co-star Samuel Barnett, the gay (and Tony nominated) History Boy, and Hugh Dancy, the British film actor (Galahad in 2004's "King Arthur" and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in 2005's "Elizabeth I"). "I've just started doing my research on World War I," Gaines said, but the 1930 movie of Journey's End—James Whale's first film—with Colin Clive and David Manners, continues to elude him.

Also arriving late, making the party only, but having earlier seen the show: mother-of-the-star Jill Clayburgh ("I cleaned my house before I came, I did"). She's the compulsive house-cleaner in The Clean House, the Sarah Ruhl play now previewing for an Oct. 30 opening at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. It's the fourth play she has starred in this season, three on Broadway, one off. When was the last time an actor has pulled that hat trick off? Has one? A year ago this week, Clayburgh was making her first Broadway appearance in 20 years at the American Airlines Theatre. Now it is her daughter, Darling Lily, starring in that very same theatre.

Others in attendance: playwright and not so incidentally father-of-the-star David Rabe, Tovah Feldshuh, Betsy Aiden, set designer Tony Walton, Roger Rees, Margaret Colin, the choreographer and director of the incoming (but when?) Curtains Rob Ashford and Scott Ellis, lyricist-director David Zippel, Robert LuPone, Roundabout founder Gene Feist and artistic director Todd Haimes, Dana Delaney, the Pig Farm faction (director John Rando, playwright Greg Kotis and Katie Finneran, who opened a new window recently in the New York Musical Theatre Festival running a 1940s all-girl orchestra in the delightful Hot and Sweet) and, oddly, sitting on opposite sides of the theatre, two of the collective greats: Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick. Arriving, all-smiles—and with cause—was Elizabeth Wilson, who has been among the beloveds for a long time, but now it's official: On Jan. 29, she will be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, along with Patti LuPone, Wendy Wasserstein, Willa Kim, Eugene Lee, August Wilson, Brian Friel and George Hearn.

Jennings and Camp both have working-actress wives. Mrs. Jennings (gorgeous Caroline McCormick) is momentarily "at liberty," playing wife and mother, but Mrs. Camp (marvelous Elizabeth Marvel, last seen as a lizard in Edward Albee's Seascape) starts rehearsals Monday on Dark Matters a new play by Roberto (Based on a Totally True Story) Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Trip Cullman, co-starring Justin Chatwin and Michael Cullen. "It's at the Rattlestick, two blocks from our apartment. We just got a new baby so I gotta work near home." He's three months old, and he'll be the only Silas in his class.

Robert Cuccioli, looking like your garden-variety dreamboat stagedoor-johnny in his blue blazer and white turtleneck, stood off to the side while Robins flitted with friends and fans and met her public at the party. He was proud but not surprised. "She knows how to do these parts." (He saw the show: Jacques Brel is alive and well and dark on Wednesdays.)

Heartbreak House is one of four plates which dialogue coach Stephen Gabis has been spinning of late. The others: The Hairy Ape and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which have opened, and David Mamet's adaptation of The Vorsey Inheritance which director David Warren will open Dec. 6 at the Atlantic with Michael Stuhlbarg and Judith Roberts. "It has been seven days a week," sighed Gadis. "I get on my bicycle and go from rehearsal to rehearsal. People who know me know I'll be there, but I insist on getting started before rehearsal. I worked with Cynthia [Nixon] getting her ready for Jean Brodie—and the little girls as well for the Edinburgh accents. That's the way they do it on film. You work in advance so it's not on-the-job training. That's the best of all possible worlds if it works out that way so you get at least a leg up. They don't walk into the first rehearsal totally flumuxed by an accent."

The Vorsey Inheritance has now moved to the top of Gadis' priorities. "Mamet loves to play around with old Victorian/Edwardian things," he said. "Mamet loves scam stories. In The Winslow Boy, the kid's a bit of a scam artist in that, and this is a scam story as well."

Dylan Baker said he had to pull out of The Cartells: A Prime Time Soap . . .LIVE!, which the Drama Dept. is doing at Comix Oct. 16, 23 and 30 because he "got a job"—a film, with Richard Gere: "It was called `Spring Break in Bosnia,' but I think it's called `Flakjacket' now. It shoots in Bosnia so I'm headed over there in about a week and a half. It's just a week, but I've never been there. I'm a CIA guy who comes to the rescue of some people."

Simon Jones, who has done some Roundabout Shaw with Bosco, said his TACT group will be going extra innings with a fully staged version of David Storey's Home Dec. 2-23 in its new home away from home, the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row.

""I love Shaw," Bosco declared, pushing back his plate at the party. "I've done 11 of his plays—four of them more than once. I've done You Never Can Tell twice, Major Barbara twice, The Devil's Disciple twice and this one twice. When I played it at Circle in the Square with Rex Harrison, that was a good production—Rosemary Harris, Dana Ivey, Amy Irving. This is a wonderful cast, too, and the director was superlative—one of the best I've ever worked with."

"Comedy Tonight!—can you believe it?" exuded the traditionally sombre Robins, who for refreshing change gets to display some sparkling and highly refined wit. "It's so nice to do this instead of crying for a living—and so much fun, like exercising a whole other muscle." She had to pause and think long and hard to come up with her last comedy, in point of fact. "Oh, gosh. Well, maybe Arms and the Man, another Shaw play, back at New Jersey Shakespeare—I did Raina—but, of course, at the time I didn't know much about Shaw's language and delivery, so I look back and I go, `What the heck did I do?'"

Not only is she funny, she's beautiful being funny—a compliment she quickly passes to the show's costume designer. "Jane Greenwood is a genius. She is my goddess. I worship at her feet. She says, `How about this?' I'm, like, `You pick it, honey. You don't even talk to me. Just put it on me. Make me look good.'" Greenwood did as instructed. I asided to Cuccoli that I hoped Robins got to keep her costumes she looked so smashing in them—"but, then, where could she wear them?" He assured me she would find a way.

I wished the same for Kurtz, who is also flatteringly attired by Greenwood. "Oh, I wish I could keep them, too," she confessed. "I would have worn my second-act dress to opening night if they would have let me." The first-act costume is a rust-red number that goes with her cascading curls ("Other women can snare men in their hair. I can swing a baby on mine," her character crows.) The abundance of fringe on this dress leads to the suspicion it was once drapes, and you start looking for Bill Blass curtain rods.

"It's a juicy role," said Kurtz, who's not timid about putting the character out there. "I never thought I'd get there, but now I feel I know who she is, and I'm just lettin' her fly."

As her husband—the roue-in-residence—Jennings has a high old time of it and takes it at a gallop, buzzing from flower to flower to flower. "I always enjoy being a rascal. There's nothing more fun than being a rascal, I guess." He gleefully embraces the Greenwood get-ups, as he goes—at one point, lunging forth in a Lawrence of Arabia headgear looking exactly like Ben Turpin. When he shucks that, his suave persona returns.

The Paper of Record recently noted that, in any play he's in, he's usually the most stylish person on stage—a compliment that sets his teeth gnashing. "I didn't quite know what to make of that. I guess it was nice. If you have to see something in the paper, I guess it's good to see that. I'm a little skeptical about those things, but other than that, it was nice." Most of the vocal bombast in the show comes from Camp's camp, wolfing out of the role of Boss Mangan exactly like Sir Donald Wolfit. "I didn't have anybody specifically in mind," he contended—but you decide, America. (It's an excellent performance—and perfect for this play.)

Rabe, who made her Broadway debut only two years ago as the doomed young heroine of Steel Magnolias, betrayed her Bethlehem Steel roots as this young Shavian heroine. "It's overwhelming in the best way," she admitted. "I'd much rather be overwhelmed than underwhelmed by a part and sorta think, `OhmyGod, what am I going to do now?' It's a gorgeous role. It's such a privilege to be able to play a part like this. I mean, it's amazing, having just graduated college a couple of years ago to be doing Shaw. It's what you go to school to study. It's Shaw. And then I'm doing it, with these people. And it's very unbelievable. Ellie is so much more than the ingenue. She is so smart and brave, and she is really just trying to survive and sorta figure life out. She goes through so much, taking life as a constant and trying to figure out the best way to get ahead. She has everything against her: she's a poor woman, and she sorta comes out on the other end of things."

John Christopher Jones, who plays Rabe's father, is on familiar footing here and among friends: "I worked with Phil Bosco in The Miser at Circle in the Square Uptown I don't know how many years ago. This is my fourth show with Byron. It's like old home week. Eighteen years ago I worked with Robin Lefevre."

British director Lefevre was the last to arrive at the party, deliberately. "I don't go to first nights, so I had a very good evening," he said. "I went back to the hotel and watched soccer. I never go to openings. Never. It's all theirs. It's their show, and they have to do it."

Lefevre never directed Heartbreak House before, but it always fascinated him. "It's an extraordinary play," he contends. "The wars, the fact that people are deliberately distracted by the powers that be, given other things to think about when they should be concentrating on whether we should be where we are at the moment—that's what Shaw's writing about. The people in this house were so involved with themselves that they didn't see the storm clouds of war approaching until it was too late.

"So the parallels of 1913 to 2006 are appropriate. Nothing changes. Shaw recognized in the early part of the 20th century that forces were afoot to deflect people, to take people's eye off the ball—and none so more than now. From my perspective and my country, many of us were against the war. Many of us marched against the war. All that didn't make a bit of difference to Blair. You look at the glint in the eye of Blair and you see the glint of the zealot, you can bet your life somebody's going to die somewhere. It's unfortunate, and it's a source of great distress to many, many of us that we didn't see it. We were conned. The guy's a snake-oil salesman. I'm nearly 60, and I didn't see it. And I thought I was clued in. I thought I was sophisticated. But I'm not. I'm not. I thought I could spot con men. I didn't spot him, and that's a major source of embarrassment and shame for many of us. That's the sort of the resonance that runs through the play."


The cast of <i>Heartbreak House</i> takes their opening night bows.
The cast of Heartbreak House takes their opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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