Review: `Heartbreak House’

Opened Sept. 5, 2007

Mirth, wisdom reside in Berkeley Rep’s Heartbreak House
Four stars (GBS=Great bloody show)

What a good summer it’s been for George Bernard Shaw. First California Shakespeare Theater unfurled a tremendous Man and Superman. And now Berkeley Repertory Theatre has opened its 40th anniversary season with Heartbreak House.

There’s a reason that Heartbreak has now been performed in each of Berkeley Rep’s four decades: it’s a brilliant comedy with sharp teeth. While the crackling repartee makes you laugh, Shaw’s world view gnashes at your conscience.

As you settle into the Roda Theatre for three hours of Shavian wit, the playwright takes his time pulling you into the proper frame of mind (that is to say, HIS frame of mind). Like one of his characters in the play does, he practically hypnotizes us with comfortable comedy.

Act 1 is almost pure set-up. The curtain rises on director Les Waters’ production, and we immediately admire Annie Smart’s set for the living room of an English country home owned by the Shotover family.

Captain Shotover has spent his life as an adventurer and inventor, so his home reflects his travels. Hanging from the beamed ceiling are turtles, seagulls, planets, boats and an alligator. There are African masks on the walls and an Asian influence in the furniture.

The crusty, cranky Captain (Michael Winter), at 88 years old, is fully enjoying his dotage. He speaks directly and truthfully when he’s not being a childish fool, and he has plenty of reason to be foolish as he finds his home full of family members and their friends, all in various states of romantic distress.

His daughter Hesione Hushabye (Michelle Morain, above right, making a welcome return to Berkeley Rep) has a do-nothing husband, Hector Hushabye (Stephen Caffrey, below, who preens like a pro), who has a glorious moustache and a roving eye. That eye has landed on two women: Hesione’s long-absent sister, Ariadne (Susan Wilder, below), an uppity snob who prefers to be known by her title, Lady Utterword, and a proletarian young friend named Ellie Dunn (the luminous Allison Jean White).

Not knowing that her husband has a thing for Ellie, Hesione has invited the young woman and her father (Matt Gottlieb) for a weekend in the hope of averting a major matrimonial mistake. For complex reasons having to do with history and business, Ellie has been engaged to wealthy magnate Boss Mangan (David Chandler, in fine uptight form), whom she does not love.

For a proud Bohemian such as Hesione, marriage as a business transaction is unthinkable, so she’s going to meddle all she can and get Mangan to fall in love with her instead.

Because this is Shaw, we get too much of a good thing in the form of superfluous characters such as a fidgety brother-in-law (Michael Ray Wisely snagging an optimum number of laughs), an overweening housekeeper (Lynne Soffer) and a burglar (Chris Ayles), who seems to have dropped in from another play.

By Act 2 (which is merged with Act 3 for a long second half), we’re fully immersed in the romantic machinations, and we’ve fallen under Shaw’s spell.

Where else but from Shaw do we get characters conversing so intently and so intelligently that we don’t want them to stop? There’s a wonderful scene between the Captain and young Ellie when her youth and intelligence and his age and experience meld into the most dynamic, life-affirming chat imaginable.

Lest we settle into these upper-crust musings on life and its meaning, Shaw has other designs on our romantic delusions. He wants to remind us that there is a bigger world out there, so in the final act, as World War I dawns, bombs literally fall on our complacent Brits. Rather than terror in the face of death and destruction, Shaw’s characters find shallow, self-serving delight that such exciting things should be happening to them.

Heartbreak, we’re told, is life educating you. Shaw lets us know in no uncertain terms that we require an awful lot of education. His message is still clear: we’ll waltz happily into our destruction, sherry in hand, thrilled to toast such a marvelous apocalypse.

For information about Heartbreak House, visit

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