The Bald Soprano & The Lesson
by Elyse Sommer
The British being devotees of all things floral, set designer Loy Arcenas has upped the Smiths' British-ness by splashing their living room wall with a rose-patterned wall paper hung with painted flower-filled vases . When Mr. Smith finally lowers his newspaper, what amounts to a platitudinous monologue disintegrates into nonsensical non sequiturs masquerading as sensible dialogue.
Eugene Ionesco's deconstruction of language as a trustworthy communications tool, La Cantatrice Chauve, has become the Paris equivalent of The Mousetrap for the Theatre de la Huchette where it's been playing for half a decade. Known to English speaking audiences as The Bald Soprano, this was this father of absurdism's first play, or as he preferred to call it, "anti-play."
Fifty-year-old plays invariably invite new translations. The latest take on The Bald Soprano, along with another one-acter, The Lesson, comes from Tina Howe. Ms. Howe has taken some liberties, but remains true enough to the originals to make us see people struggling unsuccessfully to use language to make sense of a senseless universe.
Carl Forsman has directed the newly translated pair for maximum humor which, in the first play especially, had the audience at the Atlantic Theater respond with appreciative laughter to scenes like the Smiths' priceless exchange about a group of people, all called Bobby Watson.
Entertaining, as both plays are, neither is a home run. Why? First, except for his indestructible work like Rhinoceros, Ionesco's avant-garde edge has been somewhat preempted by the very writers he influenced, including pop media absurdists. Secondly, Mr. Forsman's more soft than hard-edged interpretation overplays the Soprano's drawing room comedy aspects and underplays the sinister quality of The Lesson. Consequently, while this is an amusing evening worth seeing, it lacks the brilliance that carried Simon McBurney's 1998 revival of The Chairs to Broadway for the first time in thirty years.
The double bill is blessed with an outstanding cast, all of whom manage to shed their proper British decorum for occasional manic outbursts. Jan Maxwell is terrific as the fluttery Mrs. Smith, and Michael Countryman displays the right degree of grumpiness as her husband. Seana Kofoed and Robert Stanton are a perfect match as the visiting Mr. and Mrs. Martin, who initially seem to be strangers and eventually prove to be interchangeable with the Smiths. John Ellison Conlee adds considerably to the banal quirkiness of this get-together of people who can't connect to themselves, let alone each other. His fireman, like everyone else, is frustrated, in this case by the dirth of fires to put out. (The Captain's "There's nothing out there, just chicken feed -- a chimney here, a barn there. Nothing big. It doesn't bring anything in. Because there's no yield, the profits on returns are negligible." leads Mr. Smith to responds with " It's the same everywhere. Business, agriculture. . . It's like your fires this year, nothing's happening."). Maggie Lacey is delightful as the Maid and the Fire Captain's love interest
In The Lesson, another Maggie, Maggie Kiley, is amusing as the hapless student who can only absorb knowledge by rote. Steven Skybell plays the professor whose frustration becomes threatening with a Groucho Marx-like broadness that lingers even during the descend into darkness. The Lesson is more or less a tag-along to round out the evening, and somehow is neither as funny or as dark as it seems intended to be.
As the Smiths and the Martins and the Professor and Student make less and less sense, it does make sense to ignore the above mentioned flaws and see this nimble cast in this stylishly staged production. Don't wait too long though. This is not a fifty-plus year run shades of La Cantatrice Chauve at the Theatre de la Huchette.
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