That vacuum is represented theatrically by the drawing-room-comedy conventions that set the plot in motion. The glamorous, witchy Hesione (Charlotte Parry) has invited to the house a young, impoverished friend, Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal), with the aim of persuading her not to marry Mangan. A series of mistaken identities involving Hesione’s husband and Ellie’s father establishes a blithe mood, albeit with typical Shavian grounding in the realities of gender and money and class. Romantic attachment and disappointment are presented as mirror images of social attachment and disappointment, a stance that, were it not for the jokes, would seem almost Chekhovian. (The play’s subtitle is “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.”)
But Mangan’s arrival blows all that down, and “Heartbreak House” becomes, for the rest of its longish duration — here shortened by the elimination of a subplot involving a burglar — an increasingly gripping intellectual drama in which the battering of hearts is merely the pretext for a clash of philosophies. Shaw is too humane a moralist to hand the trophy to either side, but he is also too impassioned a socialist to pull his punches. Ancient Captain Shotover, father of Hesione and Lady Utterword, calls Mangan and his ilk “hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts.” Having seen how such men thrive on liberal attempts at appeasement, he recommends killing them.
This did not faze the Hartford audience at the matinee I attended. But the insistent realness of a Trumpalike onstage does distort the way the play comes across. In truth, our president matches only some aspects of Mangan’s personality because, like all of Shaw’s characters, Mangan is multifarious. “People don’t have their virtues and vices in sets,” Hesione says, “they have them anyhow: all mixed.”
So if Mangan — whose given name…