Arts Listings

The Theater: A Panoply of Strange Customers at the Rep

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday September 07, 2007

Under a suspended crocodile in the parlor of a country home which resembles a ship’s salon, with walls covered in primitive masks and scimitars, a female servant (Lynne Soffer as Nurse Guinness) is sympathizing with a newly arrived, ungreeted—perhaps forgotten--guest: “Since she’s forgotten all about it, it will be a pleasant surprise for her to see you!” 

This is just the first arrival in a madcap stream of entrances: obviously eccentric denizens, past and present, and visitors to what the neglected (and seemingly normal) young lady, Ellie Dunn (Allison Jean White), later dubs Heartbreak House, after her only flirtation with high romance is revealed as just another compulsive interlude of wishful seduction by the husband, Hector Hushabye (Stephen Caffrey), of her hostess, Heshione (Michelle Morain). 

But the seemingly normal young woman, her brusque older intended husband (David Chandler as “Captain of Industry” Boss Mangan) and even a prepossessing burglar (Chris Ayles) will all be revealed as eccentrics themselves before the strange menage (and all of eccentro-centric England) gets derailed from its elaborate (and very comic) round of games, self-explanations and handwringing by a worldwide crisis greater by far than any of their own provincial, self-imposed wrangles in Bernard Shaw’s inverted comic masterwork, which opens Berkeley Rep’s 40th anniversary season. 

The panoply of strange customers who set up shop in the home of irascible Capt. Shotover (Michael Winters), who “sold his soul to the devil in Zanzibar,” seems to establish a square root of not-so-Goethean elective affinities, at first one with another, then hilariously multiplying. Each character alternately seems to feel and explain, at great, glib length, attraction to and/or repulsion for the others, one by one.  

This doesn’t include the game of animal magnetism practiced by Ella over Boss Mangan, nor the recognition or revelation of identities and past relationships, which kick off with an open, if neatly sidestepped, secret: the return home, after a quarter century among colonial rulers, of the younger of “the demonic sisters,” Ariadne, now Lady Utterword (Susan Wilder), trailed by her ne’er-do-well flautist brother-in-law, Randall (Michael Ray Wisely).  

“Young people understand nowadays a soul is an expensive thing to keep, more expensive than a motorcar,” says the Captain. But this Manichean socialist, holding forth on the more-than-class differences of “our seed and theirs,” sits at his drafting table making his quickly dissipated fortune inventing clever new armaments for mass slaughter. 

The cast is well up to a long evening’s comedy, especially the Shotover family—Captain and demon daughters—and the burglar who intends to be caught in the act. Chris Ayles’ entrance in the role picks up the pace and opens up the humor considerably.  

But director Les Waters has staged the play as a version of a later, more cinematic convention: screwball comedy. This skews the timing of Shaw’s marvelous lines and overloads (and slows down) what should be a satire with a zany, schtick-laden treatment of a cooly stylized stagepiece of great originality. 

Though the program mentions critical awareness of Shaw’s playing off Chekhov, there’s no sense of his parody, even burlesque, of the cult of Russian plays and novels—or of Oscar Wilde and Aestheticism, for that matter—which flourished among the would-be Bohemians of England’s Georgian middle class.  

Shaw, in his own way, covered similar ground as poet Ezra Pound did in his “Moeurs Contemporains” and novelist Ford Madox Ford did in some of the character and milieu studies in his Parade’s End quaternity of novels. All blasted the involuted English ego in its game of hide-and-seek, fiddling very artistically while Rome burned. Ford Madox Ford wrote in the ‘20s how he—and so many others—discounted the crises leading up to The Great War, so sure were they that the Labour Party, the Socialists in France, German Social Democrats, and independents generally would prevent a war. The house of cards rapidly fell, and many artists and poets were the first to fall in the carnage that followed. 

The program notes also make an unconvincing argument for the “surrealism” of Shaw’s charming, smarmy grotesques. What’s missed, both in the notes and too often on stage, is the hyper-self-aware quality actors of Shaw’s plays ideally adopt toward the characters they portray, one reason Bertolt Brecht acclaimed the Irish master of the English stage as genius and role model. 

As usual, The Rep’s production is sumptuous—Annie Smart’s set, Anna Oliver’s costumes, Alexander Nichols’ lighting, and the sound design and original music by Obadiah Eaves add up to a diverting, spectacular picture of the period—too much so. It’s more a setting for Galsworthy than for Shaw, a confection worthy of Masterpiece Theatre, complete with wigs. 

“How is this all going to end?” says one of the characters. Not with a whimper, but a bang, contradicting the Captain’s admonition, “I say let the heart break in silence” ... a dourly funny line after all the talk, all the fuss and nonsense of this bunch chasing their own tails.  

The Rep’s production does provoke occasional bursts of laughter at the spirited antics of the actors and at Shaw’s ingenious text, a bitter rebound off the wall of conventional comedy, but its stylization of laughter and reflection are mainly ignored. 


Contributed photo. Susan Wilder and Lynne Soffer in Heartbreak House, Shaw’s comedic masterpiece staged by Obie-winner Les Waters for Berkeley Rep’s 40th birthday. 


Heartbreak House 

The Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. 

throught Oct. 14