Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley Heartbreak House Disappoints

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday January 25, 2011 - 03:33:00 PM
Stanley Spenger, Taylor Diffenderfer, Michele Delattre
Anna Kaminska
Stanley Spenger, Taylor Diffenderfer, Michele Delattre

First produced in 1920, Heartbreak House is about cultured, leisured Europe before the First World War when crowned heads ruled and before “Bolshevik” was a common word. 

In the play’s preface, Shaw explains that he was writing a prequel to that dire post-war world order: “…our utter enervation…in that overheated drawing room atmosphere was delivering the world over to the control of ignorant and soulless cunning and energy, with the frightful consequences which have now overtaken it.” Seems as applicable to our circumstances now as then. 

However, none of that connective commentary on world affairs as revealed in the microcosm of the drawing room comes across in this production, at least not in the first act. 

The cast is uneven in abilities, which always takes its toll. Though there is no dialect coach, the ensemble by and large has reasonable British accents with jarring exceptions. However, it is played as a Comedy of Manners with too much accent on the Manners and not enough on the Comedy. The comedy should come through the characters with much internal grinning at the witty dialogue and ironic circumstances Shaw concocts.  

The costuming is excellent, but it is difficult to figure out what’s going on. It suffers from a slow start and a slow pace of line-delivery throughout. 

This is regrettable because director Robert Estes has assembled a cast of good actors, but has not led them to ensemble and energy and to the telling of a story.  

The placement of the furniture paints a pretty picture but impedes traffic and offers little motivation to move around. The lighting downstage in front of the proscenium is appropriately bright, but falls dim mid-stage where most of the activity occurs. 

Shaw peoples Heartbreak House with his usual cast of characters: an inventor of weapons of mass destruction, a revolutionary, a naïve and lovely ingénue, a sadder but wiser women, a captain of industry, and a womanizing rotter who would be at home in a Wilde play. 

When the lovely young thing confesses her love of an older man to the witty and wise wife, only to have that man enter and be introduced as the wife’s husband, everyone—including the womanizing rotter husband---takes it in stride with little surprise. Admittedly, showing modern attitudes of the bohemian upper class is a goal, but none of the three characters in the triangle react with any surprise. This lack of reactivity is a major failing in the individual performances generally. 

After an inconveniently long wait in queue for tickets, the play then lasts 2:45 with two intermissions. This is a lot to ask of the modern audience even for a blockbuster movie or a play with compelling acting and plotting. It was too much to ask of this critic who slipped out after act one. 

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley  

Live Oak Theatre 1301 Shattuck Avenue (at Berryman) in North Berkeley 

Plays Fri, Sat thru Feb. 19 at 8 p.m., Sun Mat Feb 13 at 2 p.m. or 510-649-5999 

Written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Robert Estes, costumes by William Curry, set by Jerome Solberg, and lighting by Alecks Rundell. 

WITH:Michele Delattre,Taylor Diffenderfer, Amaka Izuchi, Keith Jefferds, Brian McManus, Joseph O'Loughlin, Lynn Sotos, Stanley Spenger, Matthew Surrence, and Jeff Trescott.