IT'S IRONIC THOUGH easily explicable, that the greatest flowering of the "theater of the absurd" (the nonrealist works of Beckett, Genet, Albee, Pinter, and Eugene Ionesco) occurred during the "Decade of Conformity"—the 1950s. While popular culture rushed to leave the horrors of two world wars behind, this collection of dramatists committed themselves to carrying through the philosophical implications of genocide, political chaos, and the loudly proclaimed death of God.
Intiman Theater, ends September 9
We may reflect smugly that little today shocks or surprises us, but it's interesting how rarely a writer like Ionesco is thought worthy of a regional theater production (normally he's consigned to the academic ghetto of drama schools and universities). When Jim Lewis was commissioned to prepare an original translation of The Chairs for the current production at Intiman, he was unable to find any American versions at all.
Ionesco's 1952 "tragic farce" echoes Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (and also presages the scenario of Beckett's later Endgame) with its pair of existential clowns preparing for an arrival that will somehow give their lives meaning. In a round tower surrounded by the sea, an aged janitor (Larry Block) and his ever-faithful wife (Anne O'Sullivan, who continually comforts him with her assertions that he could have been a great man "if you'd ever had the slightest bit of ambition") sit brooding over their past. Life has, for them, become an endless repetition of stories and amusements. When she asks him to impersonate the month of February, for example, he complains that she always asks him to do the same month.
BUT ALL THAT is about to change, because he's decided to finally share his message with the world. Invitations have been sent to all the influential people he can think of, from politicians to the pope, and they soon begin to arrive. Or do they? The guests are invisible to the audience, and while the couple is clearly engaged in conversation with the arrivals, it's less clear, at first, that this is anything but an elaborate game or delusion. In Whoriskey's production, however, plenty of theatrical effects suggest that the crowd is real. Doors open and close by themselves, toy boats and trains are seen arriving, and when the Emperor himself comes, a shower of balloons and confetti heralds him. Now, if only the Orator will come to express the old man's message, all will be successful.
Christine Jones' scenic design revels in nursery-room trickery. The walls of the set are covered in green grass; towers of books and chairs dominate the stage. When the final cascade of chairs appears, one set is feathered all over, as if designed for angelic derri貥s. It's quite a fun house, and the pop-up-book delight it creates is certainly one of the major triumphs of this show. (Whether it accurately reflects the playwright's stated theme of nothingness is debatable.)
Much of The Chairs has the merry energy of a spoof, but it's very hard to figure out just what it's spoofing. Time has not been as kind to Ionesco's comic confabulation of metaphor, wordplay, and anachronistic fooling as it's been to the more somber work of Beckett. (But then, doesn't comedy always date more quickly than drama?) While Block's got a vaudevillian's timing and O'Sullivan gets a lot of mileage at first creating a grandmotherly type then sending it up with a burlesque bump-and-grind, the buffoonish banter that they share often comes across as forced. It's only occasionally, as when we hear them separately reveal dark secrets of parental abuse and a disowned child, that the ear tunes in to more resonant undertones.
By the play's end, one has certainly been amused, and with the arrival of the enigmatic Orator (Myra Platt), a wistful and elegiac beauty is achieved. But some of Ionesco's tragic vision never reaches the stage. It's hard to say whether it's the text, the direction, or the vast and sumptuous design that inhibits the overall effect, but a note of sentimentality deadens what could have made a greater impact.