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Tv Review : 'Heartbreak House' Suffers In Transition

January 24, 1986|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

"Heartbreak House" is Shaw's darkest, most difficult and most prophetic play, full of tenderness and foreboding, wit and apocalyptic vision and, for all of those reasons, the Shavian play that most frequently misfires.

But in 1983, New York's Circle in the Square presented a burnished revival of it--so subtle and resplendent, with Rex Harrison at last playing his age and delivering such an unforgettable Captain Shotover--that it could easily be termed definitive.

Tonight on PBS' "Great Performances" (8 p.m., Channel 24; 9 p.m., Channels 28 and 15) comes an abridged version of it--again with Harrison, the winsome Rosemary Harris as eccentric Hesione, Dana Ivey as prim Lady Utterwood and Amy Irving superb again as plucky and coolheaded Ellie Dunn.

So why has its edge been dulled?

Because editing and the camera's frame have put the wrong constraints on a production that had soared on stage. Despite a host of impressive television credits, director Anthony Page, responsible for all that magic at Circle in the Square, here seems merely to have photographed the play--close-up after confining close-up.

The fact that the three-hour plus stage play already had been cut for videotaping by Showtime and may have been edited further for "Great Performances" also takes its toll.

Those who never saw it on stage will mine some gold from this facsimile. Certainly what's there of the performances by Harris and Harrison, Ivey and Irving is still sterling. But the dynamic of the play is undermined and only its final, dread, explosive image benefits from the long shot a helicopter can afford.

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