SAN DIEGO — "Jeeves Takes Charge" at the Lyceum Stage, thank goodness. If Jeeves didn't, what on earth would poor Bertie Wooster do?
Why, without his incomparable valet, Bertie might . . . might . . . continue to wear checked suits or red waistcoats or marry women who would force him to read Nietzsche.
"You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound," Jeeves tells Bertie, a good-natured goof who can barely get through grade B thrillers such as "Trail of Blood."
Much of the delight in this show, adapted by Edward Duke from the deucedly clever writings of P.G. Wodehouse and produced by Charles H. Duggan, is watching Duke pull off all of a dozen characters in this one-man performance.
He wrings his own neck as Bertie's domineering fiancee Florence. He shambles as his squinty-eyed uncle who suspects Bertie of swiping his manuscript (Bertie did at Florence's request--er, demand). He whines as the twerpy Augustus Finknottle who wishes that he lived in the world of newts rather than men. He glowers as a table full of redoubtable aunts listening balefully to one of Bertie's poorly told jokes.
"Lips were pursed and noses looked down," Bertie reports after thoroughly bumbling the punch line.
Sometimes the impersonations get deliciously subtle as when Bertie does his Jeeves imitation in the first scene and Jeeves does his Bertie in the second.
The impressions, while perfect, are unmistakably impressions of one character through the eyes of another who still manages to retain that telling whiff of himself.
It has been 10 years since Duke first tackled the roles that made a name for himself and the ease shows in this tour de force.
Duke directed the only other person to perform in this show, Don Sparks, at the Old Globe in 1988. Sparks was never less than excellent, but with Duke there is that wonderful sense of never even sensing him sweat through the lightning quick changes of dress, of character, of scene. The man doesn't play these roles anymore, he breathes them.
The world of Bertie may seem to be a bit precious to some. His concerns, after all, run the not-so-very-grand gamut of whether he can slip the wearing of purple socks past Jeeves and whether he can evade his Aunt Dahlia's request to tap dance and sing "Sonny Boy" in public and still get to partake of the gastronomic wonders of her chef, Anatole.
But think of Wooster as the ever-adolescent id to Jeeves' superego. Or, less philosophically, cast Wooster as the ultimate yuppie with a personal manager. If said yuppie were to have a personal manager, don't you think he would want him to be Jeeves?
Try, just once, to get away with something you shouldn't and, lo and behold, Jeeves takes charge.
"A lot of people have been asking me for my tailor," Bertie tells Jeeves in defense of his checked suit.
"Doubtless to avoid him, sir," is Jeeves' dry answer.
The direction by Gillian Lynne keeps things light and flowing. The cartoon-like sets by Carl Toms add to the quality of the show. Peter Hanson's deft lighting suits the swift changes and the costumes by Una-Mary Parker are straightforward and right on target.
But best of all is the adaptation by Duke which is all Wodehouse at his woolliest. Duke wisely saw no need to improve upon writing that carelessly tosses out such descriptive gems as:
"The woman that God forgot."
"He looked as if he had been poured into a suit and forgot to say when."
"There was a silence you could have dug bits out of with a spoon."
And then, of course, there is Jeeves' summation of the nature of his calling:
"Employers are like horses. They require managing."
Warning: Those allergic to laughter should avoid "Jeeves Takes Charge." The humor is infectious and, judging by the opening night audience, quite irresistible.
"JEEVES TAKES CHARGE"
Conceived, adapted and performed from the works of P.G. Wodehouse by Edward Duke. Director is Gillian Lynne. Sets by Carl Toms. Lighting by Peter Hanson. Costumes by Una-Mary Parker. Choreography by Susan Holderness. Stage manager is Cathy VanWickler. At 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays with Sunday matinees at 3 through March 25. Tickets are $20-$22. At 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, 235-8025.