Nearly 30 years after its premiere in England, and 25 years after the movie everybody remembers with such affection, “The Ruling Class,” Peter Barnes farcical melodrama, is finally getting its East Coast premiere at Wilma’s handsome new theater on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. The question is not why they waited so long, but why they bothered at all. Despite the lavish production, the object of the play’s attack — the decadent British aristocracy — is of little interest to American audiences. If satire is to be pointed, somebody has to care about the issue. Lines like, “All men created equal?! My God, he’s a commie!” or “The strength of the English people lies in their inhibitions” fall pretty flat.
The plot has the 13th Earl of Gurney accidentally hanging himself during a sexual escapade, while the 14th Earl thinks he is the Dali Lama of the Universe and takes naps on a gigantic crucifix in the manorial parlor. Enter the solution , a doxy who can provide a 15th Earl, thereby securing the family name and estate.
There’s a Trotskyite butler, a long-winded debate between two lunatics who both claim to be God, a blustering bishop, a predatory countess, and a rowing song sung by Old Etonians. The crazy Earl is cured of divine delusions, only to become Jack the Ripper. People say things like “breeding speaks to breeding” and occasionally break into Brechtian song. It’s all the same joke, the same old-time, left-wing, ultra-English gripe.
Jiri Zizka’s staging is impressive albeit not particularly imaginative, depending on an expensive-looking massive set and scrims that often merely underline the point (huge faces of MPs become skeletons under their ceremonial wigs). Karen Hinton’s Grace and Rufus Collins’ Jack, the 14th Earl, are lots of fun to watch, as is the rest of the cast, who knock themselves out in multiple roles.