Were he not dead since 1950, George Bernard Shaw would be amused or incensed or both. As his 1919 play, “Heartbreak House,” opened the Berkeley Rep's 40th anniversary season Wednesday, Shaw was made out to be visionary, relevant, serious even.
G.B.S. was all that and more, holding up a funhouse mirror, exposing both truth and absurdity while giving (guilty) pleasure to the audience, but never did he take himself too seriously.
From artistic director Tony Taccone down to program notes galore, Berkeley touts “Heartbreak House” as something specifically prophetic.
According to Taccone, “No other play that I know speaks so directly to the situation at hand: a humorous depiction of a desperate class of people desperately working to prove that they are not desperate.” And, “Heartbreak House” is supposed to represent “a huge yearning to jar us out of our political complacency.”
Shaw vs. the Iraqi quagmire? Goodness, gracious! Where did this highfaluting stuff come from? Shaw did write a long, somewhat convoluted preface to the play, did discuss politics and the world situation (at the time of World War I), but that's not what the play is about.
“Heartbreak House” is “The Cherry Orchard” with teeth, albeit without Chekhov's ability to make us care deeply about the characters. It is an amusing, talky play, but its only direct relationship with the next century's great issues of the day is a heavy-handed but basically accurate put-down of the evils of capitalism.
Perhaps that's why, in spite of a cast full of brilliant performances, this Les Waters production (Berkeley Rep's fourth, after 1973, 1982 and 1996) drags a bit.
The line after three hours, “How is all this going to end?” evoked a somewhat nervous laughter, as in “that's just was I was thinking.” Yes, the audience became somewhat restless, little wonder when a three-act play is squeezed into two, with the part after intermission running nearly two hours.
And yet, nothing can take away from the excellence of individual performances (which, in fact, remained apart, the director failing to create a sense of true ensemble), a cast without a weak link.
As peculiar, iconoclastic and talky characters converge in this “Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” the first thing that captures attention is Anna R. Oliver's spectacular costume design, providing an authentically period-specific fashion show.
Allison Jean White's young, supposedly naive Ellie Dunn sings an evening-long aria with a steely crescendo. Michelle Morain projects herself out to the audience with irresistible force; her portrayal of Mrs. Hushabye, Ellie's would-be protector, is memorable.
Michael Winters is Captain Shotover, the looney, wise old man of this zoo of an estate. David Chandler's Boss Mangan (the evil capitalist, with feet of clay) is a great performance. Stephen Caffrey's philandering Hushabye is just as charming as the character must be.
Confused and confusing Ariadna, returning to the house after a 23-year attempt to get away, is portrayed by Susan Wilder fetchingly. Stephen Caffrey, Michael Ray Wisely and Chris Ayles contribute well; Lynne Soffer is not only a fine Nurse Guinness, but also responsible for dialect and text coaching.
IF YOU GO
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 14
Tickets: $33 to $69
Contact: (510) 657-2848 or www.berkeleyrep.org