City Paper is not for tourists
There’s no Orator, but never mind—the emptiness of words has always been at issue in The Chairs, that accelerating absurdist cocktail party for a couple who have everything and nothing to say. Alain Timar’s punked-out metaproduction, a French theater-festival success restaged at the Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring space, extends the thought: Two snarling, multiply pierced young persons—actors, apparently, who seem to be living way the hell downtown, in some sort of used-office-furniture warehouse—toy athletically with the notion of playing The Chairs’ doddering old twosome in a production staged just for themselves. They vent and they vamp, theme-and-variationizing through the nonsense dialogue as if it were some 90-minute drama-class warm-up, and if some of the anguish in Eugene Ionesco’s great convulsive laugh of a play goes missing, Timar’s energetic duet discovers new shadings of frustration and futility in the furious impotence of its punkers’ snarking.
Funny? That, too. The Chairs has the bones of a farce, with its anonymous Man (a cobalt-blue-haired Marcus Kyd) and Woman (Jessica Browne-White, with a short hot-pink ’do) frantically arranging and re-arranging furniture for a rapidly swelling crowd of invisible guests, telling half-remembered old stories (half-baked new lies?) to long-lost lovers and randy colonels, none of whom the audience can see. Gabbling about the lost cities they’ve supposedly explored and the mothers and sons they’ve betrayed and been betrayed by, they pass out programs and promise a revelation—his “message,” the old man imagines, will redeem their wasted lives and set humanity free. Not until the emperor arrives to hear it, though, and not until…
Well, originally Ionesco brought on an Orator, the play’s only corporeal character aside from Man and Woman, to close the show once the old couple have flung themselves out the window of their island tower; hired by Man to sell his message to the assembled imaginary dignitaries, the Orator turns out, once the couple has turned the evening over to him, to be deaf and dumb, and he’s the play’s last great symbol, according to decades of critical thumbsucking, of the shirking of responsibility—the only real crime for the existentialist philosophers whose influence permeates Ionesco’s work. Timar, working from the same Martin Crimp translation used in the triumphant production London’s Theatre de Complicite brought to Broadway a few years back, dispenses with the Orator’s appearance, bringing the lights down on his two performers as they sit practically in the audience’s lap on the shore of a sea of chairs, furiously attempting suicide by what appears to be some form of self-inflation. They look like petulant toddlers—an apt enough suggestion for a play that suggests a species that hasn’t matured enough to matter.
Timar’s direction is as fantastically sculptural as the towering wall of motley chairs he (with an assist from local designer N. Eric Knauss) has created to define the playing space, and his actors find wonderful clarity of purpose in even the emptiest exchanges—a rapid volley of yeses and nos, of all things, gets loaded up with subtextual freight here. Kyd and Browne-White work hard enough physically that I’m guessing they’ve been able to put their gym memberships on hold this month, and they’ve found interesting games to play with the acoustics of Round House’s black-box space. (They’re not the only ones, either; Benjamin Chabas’ sound design, adapted for this production by Matthew M. Nielson, is a subtle and powerful contributor.)
Still, with the Orator just another imaginary piece of a game being played in Man and Woman’s head, without the final staggering revelation of his incoherence, some of the very real despair that ought to attend a play written in the rubble of postwar Europe goes begging. A really tremendous production, which the 1998 Complicite staging with Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwen emphatically was, can seduce its audience into hoping that something revelatory will come when the Orator does, never mind how inconsequential Man and Woman keep proving themselves; Ionesco’s genius for bleak comedy somehow renders them at once ridiculous and movingly human, and the final failure the Orator embodies can be genuinely crushing.
No such redemptive expectation arises at Round House, and while the punk anger Kyd and Browne-White bring does add a bracingly bitter edge of self-awareness to the twosome’s ridiculousness, it simultaneously distances them a little from their humanity. Their characters’ aggressive pose is just that, of course—a defense mechanism deployed by two kids who sense something of their own powerlessness in Ionesco’s tragically laughable ancients. But it’s hard to see past it sometimes, hard to get a glimpse of the vulnerability we’re presumably meant to mourn.
There’s an uncommon vulnerability on display in No Exit, of all things, in the strangely sympathetic Cradeau of Regen Wilson, who turns Jean-Paul Sartre’s tormented coward into someone whose failures we can genuinely feel for. Cooped up eternally in that banal hotel suite, with only the carnivorous harpy Inez and the needy succubus Estelle for company in an endlessly bland afterlife, he’s the one who famously discovers that “Hell is other people”—a punch-line summation of Sartre’s philosophy that seems both especially apt and especially amusing here.
Robert McNamara’s staging for the Scena Theatre occupies what may well be the city’s least agreeable black box, the small, ill-ventilated space at the Warehouse Next Door, but it’s the perfect venue for Sartre’s claustrophobic battle of wills. It makes sense, somehow, of the patrician Estelle’s instant impulse toward territoriality, just as it renders the commoner Inez’s aggressively physical boundary-pushing all the more transgressive; even the bookish Cradeau’s feeble, doomed attempt at willing himself a wall of silence to hide behind seems somehow the logical thing to do in these close quarters.
On their best behavior initially, the recently deceased threesome soon begin to test each other, to probe for weaknesses and jockey for advantage as their natures make themselves felt again. Maura Stadem’s vacantly pretty Estelle looks for confirmation of her existence, first in the mirror of Inez’s greedy eyes and then in Cradeau’s arms; Wilson’s Cradeau pleads with both women to judge his cautious life as something other than cowardice; Elle Wilhite’s glassy-eyed, nail-spitting Inez keeps turning to brutal truths for her validation, pushing the other two to acknowledge the selfishness behind their plaster-saint and noble-pacifist poses. Everyone’s identity is dependent on the others’, and Sartre’s point is made: Compromise is inevitable when there’s anybody watching, and real freedom an impossible dream.
McNamara’s staging moves briskly, with Robert Rector’s crocodile-smiling bellboy adding just enough lounge-lizard smarm to insulate the production from self-importance. Melanie Clark’s sets and costumes are minimalist but efficient, with fire-engine-red draperies at the back of the stage suggesting the locale even before anyone’s said a word—and the fire extinguisher, glimpsed through the door that opens to admit the arriving inmates, is an amusing touch. Wilson’s the production’s real strength, though. Framed by performances that range from a trifle avid (Wilhite) to a little undercooked and self-conscious (Stadem), his Cradeau has a mournful, honest quality that hints that he, alone among Sartre’s condemned, might stand a chance of learning something from his confinement—if only hell and other people would let him. CP