During his life, critics attacked George Bernard Shaw for his smug moralizing and windbaggery. Shaw, a former critic (and strict vegetarian, socialist, motorcycle enthusiast, Stalin apologist, and all-around crank who died at 94 after falling off a ladder), responded thusly: "The alternative to attracting audiences by pleasing them for two hours is to put the utmost strain on their serious attention for three and sending them home exhausted but indelibly impressed."

His critics were right, but so was Shaw—his plays are verbose and scolding, but they bring enough intellectual pleasure and clever jokes to leave us indelibly impressed. His pronouncements, stuffed into the mouths of his characters, have an oracular force that justifies the dramatic sloppiness. Heartbreak House, at Intiman, is no exception. When the old sailor Captain Shotover rumbles, "You are going to let the fear of poverty govern your life; and your reward will be that you will eat but you will not live," his pronouncement lands with the weight of an Old Testament prophet. Heartbreak House's story is simple: a wealthy, eccentric graybeard (Shot-over) and his two daughters and their spouses and hangers-on fritter away a day on a country estate, wrapped up in romance and ennui. Their plots are simply means to Shaw's passionate end—indicting his fellow Englishmen as purposeless narcissists drifting blindly toward the catastrophe of WWI. As he writes in his (typically) lengthy preface: "The same nice people, the same utter futility." (He conceived the play after a weekend spent with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.) Each character pines for something or someone, but Shaw seems to prescribe heartbreak as a bracing cure for the afflictions of the idle classes. As Ellie, the naif, says: "When your heart is broken, your boats are burned: Nothing matters any more. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace." By the play's conclusion, when the characters are kvetching on the croquet lawn while enemy bombers approach, Shaw has us rooting for destruction, to blast the bourgeois boobs to hell and give society a fresh start.

Heartbreak House is difficult to direct, with nine people crowding the stage, each more symbol than character. They are like wind-up toys, all on hermetic trajectories. The capitalist falls from haughtiness to blubbering self-pity; the romantic naif suddenly decides to marry for money. Who knows why. Shaw's major concern is skipping to the next bit of satire. Director Jon Jory fails to splice Shaw's loose ends into a shapely whole but he keeps the action and dialogue moving smoothly. The performances are competent if not breathtaking: Alexandra Tavares is charming as Ellie and Michael Winters gives the bellowing Capitan the juice he deserves.

After the play, in a bar, a graduate student and a computer programmer argued about The Royal Tenenbaums, another story about a wealthy greybeard and his eccentric brood. "I couldn't finish it," the student said. "The characters were reduced to a series of quirks."

"I guess," the programmer conceded. "But it has such good ideas, such good lines."

That sounds about right.