Jiri Zizka has given The Ruling Class a first-rate production, but the play seems oddly dated. Maybe it just hasn't kept up with our crazy times.

The Ruling Class

Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts., through May 4, 546-STAGE.

The 13th Earl of Gurney (Richard M. Davidson), avatar of the reactionary British landed aristocracy, has just accidentally hanged himself while engaging in kinky sexual practices. His family, eager to protect the Gurney mansion and immense estates, is concerned about Jack (Rufus Collins), the late Earl's only surviving son and heir. Jack is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. At present, he imagines himself to be Jesus Christ, the God of Love (he thanks himself when he says grace, and responds attentively when anyone says "Oh, my God"), and believes that he is married to Marguerite Gautier, Dumas fils' Lady of the Camellias. Tucker the butler (Geoff Garland), a closet Bolshevik, is newly enriched by a bequest in the late Earl's will, and continues to serve that family as butler, spitting in their soup, getting drunk and breaking into music-hall songs. Uncle Charles (Curt Karibalis) hatches a scheme to marry Jack off to his mistress Grace (Karen Hinton), dressed as Marguerite, so that a new heir can be produced and Jack can be permanently committed to a lunatic asylum, his estates and his seat in the House of Lords safely held in trust by the rest of the family.

In 1968, The Ruling Class was for Peter Barnes what Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead was two years before for Tom Stoppard: a breakthrough first play, thrilling audiences with its brilliant language, satiric thrust and theatrical audacity.

Barnes' play was outrageous in its time not only for its irreverent subject matter (as you can see from my thumbnail summary of just the first half of the first act), but for its language (Jack is diagnosed as having "arbitrary discharge from the speech centre," a.k.a. diarrhea of the mouth) and for its anarchic theatrical freedom: characters are likely, at any moment, suddenly to burst out into a production number of "The Varsity Rag,""My Blue Heaven" or an old Etonian fight song.

Jiri Zizka has given The Ruling Class a first-rate production at the new Wilma Theater. Collins, as Jack, is wonderful, towering over the rest of his family, glowing with divine benignity and tangling everyone around him in a skein of words and lunacy. There are wonderful supporting performances (by David Disbrow as an effete cousin, and by Davidson, who returns from the dead to play the Queen's "Master of Lunacy" and a police inspector). And David P. Gordon's set is magnificent, from the 20-foot-tall four-poster bed on which the 13th Earl hangs himself, to the two-story mansion that spins into view on a turntable.

And never has Jiri Zizka's trademark use of projections seemed so integral to the action. When the play turns even darker in the second act, and Jack, now cured, assumes a Victorian facade of propriety and periodically descends into an equally Victorian murderous secret self, the stage magically plunges us into the Whitechapel side streets and alleyways of Jack's imagination (with lighting by Jerold R. Forsyth, projections by Zizka and sound design by Adam Wernick).

But for all this, The Ruling Class seems oddly dated. Perhaps this is because the play's satiric thrust is too specific, and its principal concerns are too British. And even the British, in this post-Thatcher era, have more to fear from the plutocrat executives of multinational corporations and the glad-handing policy wonks on either side of the aisle in the House of Commons than they do from the old landed aristocracy.

Or perhaps it's because the play isn't crazy enough: we've all become accustomed to more outrageous plot twists and theatrical devices (especially at the Wilma) than this play affords; and when the play does go over the top (Jack's confrontation with a rival lunatic, a "High Voltage Messiah," played, once again, by Davidson) it just seems silly.

Most likely, the play just hasn't kept up with our crazy times. With murderous paranoid-schizophrenic billionaires like John du Pont and charismatic delusional messianic cult leaders like Marshall Applewhite making headlines, real life is scarier than anything the play, even in its darkest moments, can invent.

-- Cary M. Mazer