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Photo Credit :: Joan Marcus
Arts & Entertainment
Heartbreak House at the American Airlines Theater
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
October 3, 2006 
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Once upon a time—or at least on stage and in film—people bantered gaily over cocktails and dinner, zinging ripostes and rejoinders in a merry roundelay of repartee.

And then there was your family. Dinner conversations consisting of what your father ate for lunch, followed by sullen silence—during which you yearned for your rightful family. The one living in a large country estate, somewhere outside London, perhaps, where you and your true siblings were lords and ladies, with talented friends from the worlds of art and business whom you entertained on summer weekends. Wealth and privilege commingling with a streak of bohemianism so as to prevent priggishness. Oh, where, oh, where? Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Or as Swoosie Kurtz, playing Hesione Hushabye in the current revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, says, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” It’s a line that provokes commiserative laughter from the audience: things just ain’t the same, but still we trundle on. First performed in 1920, Shaw’s three-act comedy of manners puts the microscope to a class of individuals whose moral bankruptcy, some would argue, was at least partially responsible for the Great War. With its sense of impending loss and the changes wrought by revolution, Heartbreak House bears more than a passing resemblance to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and as Shaw’s eccentric assemblage of characters stumble into each other around the grounds of Captain Shotover’s rambling ship-shaped estate, they expound grandiloquently on social theory and sexual conflict. These are people who love to hear themselves talk – and to hear them do so is to marvel at the lost art of conversation, discourse, and dialogue.

If, at times, Shaw’s characters appear at least somewhat self-obsessed, and particularly when, with hindsight, it would seem they might perhaps have paid a bit more attention to the world beyond their lawn – well, nonetheless, it’s delightful to be in their histrionic company. If it’s already too late, and the world’s about to blow to bits, then one might as well spend the final days romping with randy and witty folks.

The oft-maligned third act finds the characters reclining in the moonlight as planes roar overhead – and to see Shaw’s British characters in the twilight of their empire is to see parallels with American society’s almost-willful blindness to the restless state of the world beyond its borders. Or as Hesione might say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.