George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is the most frequently staged drama in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 40-year history. The play has been produced four times at the theater to date, once in every decade. While the curmudgeonly Irish dramatist's strange and sprawling 1919 comedy and one of the West Coast's most innovative large theaters might look like an odd match, Berkeley Rep's enduring love affair with Shaw's play makes sense when you consider the intention behind it. Berkeley has traditionally been this country's most outspoken stronghold for antiwar activists, and while Heartbreak House might appear to be a lighthearted, if rather odd, parlor game on the surface, it's an antiwar drama underneath.
Set in an eccentric country house in the south of England in the early 20th century, the plot — if it can be called that, for practically nothing happens over the space of three hours — follows a day in the lives of a middle-class English family and their various houseguests and hangers-on. What potential there is for conflict is constantly undermined as these well-educated Britishers do little else but lounge about on sofas discussing sleeping arrangements, their latest romantic intrigues, and Shakespeare. Wives don't seem bothered about sharing their philandering husbands with other women. Stunning revelations of the truth are met with a shrug. Even something as dramatically promising as the intrusion of a burglar fails to stir Shaw's leisured classes out of their post-lunch slump.
Yet Shaw composed Heartbreak House as a wake-up call to comfortable society, in protest at its failure to act and stem the disasters of conflict. "It is impossible to judge what proportion of us, in khaki or out of it, grasped the war and its political antecedents as a whole in the light of any philosophy of history or knowledge of what war is," Shaw wrote in disgust at what he saw as his fellow countrymen's stubborn apathy in the face of World War I. "But there can be no doubt that it was prodigiously outnumbered by the comparatively ignorant and childish." With its activist message, witty one-liners, and brooding, Chekhovian sense of malaise (the play was in fact inspired by the Russian dramatist's The Cherry Orchard) Heartbreak House would seem to be the quintessential Berkeley play. Yet it's difficult to imagine the drama being received in the same way today as it was when Angela Paton directed the Rep's first production in 1973.
You can imagine the atmosphere in the theater back then. Berkeley had been the site of some of the biggest rallies against the Vietnam War in the country. Locals went on hunger strikes in protest at America's involvement in the conflict. The Rep's radical audiences must have been as heartbroken by Heartbreak House's apathetic, childish characters as Shaw was. Today, though, things are different. Berkeley isn't the stormy center of revolt that it once was. The only thing that you'll find blowing in the wind in the East Bay these days, my friends, is the polite, ecologically friendly honk of a biodiesel car. As a result, the most disturbing thing about experiencing Heartbreak House in Berkeley in 2007 is the feeling that Shaw's criticisms can no longer be directed at some evil external force, at the mansions and ivory towers of the idle intellectual elite. For these days, Berkeley Rep's patrons arguably are that elite.
About two-thirds of director Les Waters' spacious yet taut production spine-chillingly succeeds in making us feel uncomfortable with our inert little lives. Waters and his collaborators achieve this effect by stimulating our senses with beautiful aesthetics and polished repartee while at the same time making Shaw's cast of morally dubious bons viveurs frustratingly likeable. We spend most of the play with our heads in the clouds but cannot escape the feeling that somewhere, far below, our feet are immersed in a puddle of cold water.
From the moment the curtain opens to reveal Annie Smart's heavenly, Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired set, our spirits lift. The room is packed with random stuff (books, a bust of the Venus de Milo, a three-dimensional model of the solar system, an enormous stuffed alligator) and yet it feels utterly harmonious and airy thanks to the long, horizontal planes, sky-blue walls, and warm, orange wood accents. A criticism of people who spend their lives immersed in books and art with little notion of the real world outside, the play was originally titled The Studio in the Clouds. Smart's space embodies this concept entirely. Anna R. Oliver's costumes are equally gorgeous and expressive. Sashaying about the stage in a bohemian brown velvet tunic and long, Turkish-style black pantaloons, Hesione Hushabye (the middle-aged bohemian in whose house the action takes place) looks like one of John Everett Millais' Pre-Raphaelite beauties or Sarah Bernhardt in one of her great, tragic roles. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic contours of Hesione's prim sister Ariadne's overcoat capture this character's role as the wife of an empire-builder and military leader.
While the production enthralls us aesthetically, it also tricks us into feeling empathy for characters whom by rights we should disdain. Marrying whip-cracking one-liners ("You are a middle-aged woman: well preserved, madam, but no longer young") with a tinge of sadness, Winters' blustering old mariner, Captain Shotover (Hesione and Ariadne's father) is a lovable eccentric. Stephen Caffrey's debonair, mustachioed Hector Hushabye (Hesione's husband) might be a liar, but he's winningly playful. It's even possible to feel sympathy for David Chandler's Boss Mangan, the selfish, pinched businessman (and Ellie's fiancé) with a face like a coffin whom everyone else hates, for Chandler makes his character seem as vulnerable as he is vain. Yet the effect of liking these characters so much is unsettling. As far-fetched and fictitious as they are, we can't help but see ourselves in their inane conversations and cold-blooded behavior.
Just when we're feeling so thoroughly chastised by Shaw's drama that we're considering flying to Washington and impaling ourselves on the railings outside the White House in protest against the war in Iraq, Waters' production abruptly changes gear. The final act of Heartbreak House is a challenge for any director with its apocalyptic turn of events followed by whimpering anticlimax. By removing the entire set between Acts 2 and 3 and staging the final scenes in a barren, post-Holocaustlike twilight, Waters certainly captures the essence of Shaw's doomsday message. But the jolting mood swing and long, clunky scene change has the unfortunate effect of allowing the spirit of revolution that Waters' production has so carefully built up in us over two acts to slip quietly away. We exit the theater feeling thoughtful, slightly disoriented, and maybe even a little heartbroken. The Lexus RX 400h runs like a dream along those leafy Berkeley streets as we all head home to our studios in the clouds.