Bringing the War Home

A 1957 play about a powerful country's war in a far-off, arid land still feels relevant today

Quick: Name an ambitious three-hour play being staged now in Berkeley that opens in a dowdy English living room, but also deals with war in a distant, arid part of the world? I mean besides Homebody/Kabul. And remember, the desire to write sweeping, politically minded plays has been with us for a very long time.

How about The Entertainer, by John Osborne? Ding ding ding ding!Yes! He wrote it in 1957, during the Suez Canal crisis, and in the Aurora Theatre's lean but potent revival it feels even more prescient than Tony Kushner's Homebody.

Osborne was one of the "angry young men" of 1950s London, a prodigy whose fame died a few decades before he did in 1994. He wrote his best stuff first: Look Back in Anger made him famous (and changed British theater) in 1956; he followed it a year later with a sprawling, experimental family drama patterned after Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. That magnum opus -- The Entertainer -- examines the sorry state of England through the show-business family of Archie Rice, who drinks and bickers with his wife and father while one of his sons goes to battle in a late, ignoble skirmish of the British Empire.

Song-and-Dance Man: Charles Dean as Archie Rice, 
a role first played by Laurence Olivier.
David Allen
Song-and-Dance Man: Charles Dean as Archie Rice, a role first played by Laurence Olivier.
Song-and-Dance Man: Charles Dean as Archie Rice, 
a role first played by Laurence Olivier.
David Allen
Song-and-Dance Man: Charles Dean as Archie Rice, a role first played by Laurence Olivier.

Details

Produced by the Aurora Theatre

Through June 16

Tickets are $26-35

(510) 843-4822

www.auroratheatre.org

The Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley

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Archie Rice is a comedian. But his career is a bust -- he puts on a faded song-and-dance routine in a seaside music hall. He's also a philanderer, a drunkard, and a sodden, smiling nihilist. At home he bullies his wife and father with a ringing music-hall wit, but between scenes we watch him sing lame patriotic songs and tell lewd jokes onstage. He's lost touch with reality, the way English culture in the '50s, according to Osborne, had also lost touch. The Entertainer mixes musical numbers into its family drama in a way that had never been tried before, and the challenge for the man who plays Archie is to sing the songs with no enthusiasm, to die onstage, without actually boring the audience. Laurence Olivier originated the role -- famously, brilliantly -- in London, and Charles Dean does a beautiful job of reviving it here. He plays Archie as a sharp and rubbery hollow man, a jaunty patriot who clearly had promise as an artist but has wandered into an alcoholic fog.

Archie's dad, Billy, was once a legendary vaudevillian, more successful than his son, but he's also gone downhill and turned into a suburban Tory bigot who comes alive only when he abuses immigrants or relives cherished memories of his own career. A son of Archie's, Frank, would be a bright hope for the Rice family if he had a career, but he seems to do nothing but sing now and then in a pub. A daughter, Jean, is a smart but insecure schoolteacher who drinks too much gin, and another son, Mick, is fighting in Suez.

The political fault lines Osborne traced in the Rice family 45 years ago seem all too familiar now. In 1956-57, England, France, and Israel invaded Egypt after Cairo nationalized the Suez Canal, threatening easy shipment of oil between Europe and the Persian Gulf. Liberals in Europe were against the invasion, because it was crass and dishonest -- England and France went in as "peacemakers" under a U.N. banner -- but conservatives didn't mind, because Egypt had strengthened its ties to the Soviet Union. Watching the Rice family bicker over the issue, and over newspaper stories about rising violence in the Middle East, is not at all like traveling back in time. In fact the play seems even more relevant than Homebody/Kabul because Osborne knew how to draw rounded, compelling characters, real people touched by politics but not warped by their author's irrepressible opinions.

Charles Dean's performance as Archie has plenty of strong support. Emily Ackerman plays Jean as a wavering, queasy liberal, with rich notes in her gin-squelched voice. Edward Sarafian is rock-ribbed and blubbering as her Tory grandfather ("Not that looks are everything, don't you believe it," he says encouragingly to Jean, whose marriage prospects have dried up. "You don't look at the mantelpiece when you poke the fire!"). Phoebe Moyer is good most of the time as Archie's wife, Phoebe, but rises to brilliance in her speeches ("I tried to make something of myself," she complains. "I tried, I really did!"). Moyer's accent sounds patchy, but she finds a vivid streak of brittleness and fierce regret in Phoebe Rice that gives the play a keen bitter taste. Alex Moggridge is less certain as Frank, the pub singer; his anti-patriotic ballad would be more stirring if it were sung in tune.

Kate Boyd's set is perfect, though: A dingy English living room on the floor of the Aurora has steps leading up to a music-hall stage, where Archie does his soft shoe. These two elements are normally kept apart, with clear scene shifts between Archie's home and work, but in one exceptional segment Archie steps out of an argument and up the stairs, into a spotlight, where he spools out his lifeless patter while the rest of the Rices slump around on the furniture, bored as horses and drunk on gin.

 
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