"Heartbreak House" is George Bernard Shaw's vision of the British upper classes fiddling while the world burns.
It plays like a drawing room comedy, except that it is set against the outbreak of World War I, to which its lovestruck characters are blithely oblivious. The contrast between their silly romantic entanglements and the bombs bursting over their heads is Shaw's ironic way of saying: "Worry, don't be happy."
And yet, in Theatre Hopkins' current production, directed by Suzanne Pratt, that irony is muffled by staging that frequently seems static and posed.
Admittedly, this is a small venue for such an ambitious work. The first indication of insufficient space comes from the set. The home of Captain Shotover, a retired sea captain, is supposed to resemble a ship, Shaw's metaphor for England as a foundering vessel.But Theatre Hopkins' stage barely has room to mount interior and exterior scenes, much less to suggest prow and stern.
Limited space, however, is no excuse for repeatedly seating actors side by side, virtually motionless, on the set's centrally located sofa. Granted, talk is action in Shaw's plays, but a little more movement wouldn't hurt.
Against these odds, Cherie Weinert does her exuberant best in the central role of Captain Shotover's bohemian daughter, Hesione Hushabye, a woman whose greatest passion is interfering with the passions of others. Patricia Coleman is similarly stunning as Ms. Weinert's "rigidly conventional" younger sister, Lady Utterword. And J. R. Lyston is gruffly cantankerous as Shaw's alter ego, the pontificating captain.
As Boss Mangan, a boorish industrialist whose engagement Mrs. Hushabye attempts to foil, Stan Weiman is so histrionic he appears to be attempting to compensate for the plodding pace, but he overdoes it.
One difficulty with seeing "Heartbreak House" today may be that its warning seems overstated. Though we may be perilously close to war in the Middle East, public sentiment reflects a minimum of fiddling and a maximum of worry. The ship of state may be as storm-tossed as ever, but at least the people on board are paying attention.
*"Heartbreak House" continues at Theatre Hopkins weekends through Dec. 2; call 338-7159.