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A CurtainUp Review
By Allan Wallach
Two old people, isolated in a circular building surrounded by water, pass their empty days remembering a past that shimmers in uncertainty and enacting a present that is populated by imaginary people.
Out of these spare building blocks, Eugene Ionesco constructed The Chairs, the absurdist 80-minute play he called a `"tragic farce."' It's the kind of play that - if it's done at all these days, given the diminished interest in Ionesco - is presented in tiny Off-Broadway theaters before scholarly audiences in search of existential significance.
So why is The Chairs filling Broadway's Golden Theater with wall-to-wall laughter?
The answer is the way the 1952 play has been staged by the brilliant British director Simon McBurney with two marvelous actors, Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers -- backed by an invisible supporting cast whose presence they all-but make us see.
This co-production of McBurney's London-based Theatre de Complicite and the Royal Court (where it opened last November) isn't so much a revival as it is a rethinking. Employing a palette of ingenious directorial flourishes, McBurney has turned The Chairs -- which in appearance resembles a bleak second cousin to Samuel Beckett's even bleaker Endgame -- into an uproarious vaudeville routine. At the end, a stab of poignancy pierces the fun, when the characters called the Old Man and Old Woman feel that their meaningless lives have been transformed at last.
Initially, as the two old people cling to recollections of a fading past they remember quite differently, they're filled with regret at how abysmally they've failed to match their early aspirations. The Old Man is told repeatedly by his wife that with his ``phenomenal intellect'' he might have become a master in any field of endeavor he chose. Instead, he declares bitterly, he is merely a ``master of the mop and bucket.'' But now he has summoned an audience to hear his great message, the culmination of a life's wisdom that will save humanity. Not trusting his own powers of expression, he has engaged an Orator to deliver the message
A lot of the fun is the way the two old people interact with all those guests whom only they can see. McEwen and Briers are like a great vaudeville team as they give each new arrival an almost palpable presence. Briers is courtly to an old flame who's lost her beauty (``your ears weren't always pointy''), bows and scrapes before a field marshal and grovels even more obsequiously with the arrival of the emperor - represented by a blinding beam of light. McEwen at one moment is shocked at the military man's lascivious romp with a female guest, at the next is grotesquely bumping and grinding in the arms of another invisible visitor.
The play's hilarious centerpiece is an explosive scene that recalls the Marx Brothers and their increasingly crowded stateroom. Here, of course, the new arrivals are unseen, but that doesn't prevent the two harried hosts from bustling about in mounting frenzy. McEwen (helped by a directorial device that's like pushing a fast-forward button) rushes out one door and back through another in the same instant, carrying on more and more chairs. Even the clever set, designed by the Quay Brothers, adds a few chairs.
Ionesco's idea that we lack the ability to communicate anything meaningful to one another is abetted admirably by Martin Crimp's lively and slightly updated new translation. Even more than in the published text, the Old Man's self-important attempts at significance are rendered ludicrous. Yes, he agrees to an unheard question, he believes in the inevitability of progress, though it's accompanied by the occasional ``genocidal hiccup.'' Ultimately, with the arrival of a puppet-like Orator (Mick Barnfather), we see that the messenger is as incoherent as the message.
Ionesco wrote to the director of the original production that the play's subject `"is not the message, nor the failures of life, nor the moral disaster of the two old people, but the chairs themselves; that is to say, the absence of people, the absence of the emperor, the absence of God, the absence of matter, the unreality of the world, metaphysical emptiness. The theme of the play is nothingness."
McBurney, who told me in an interview (Ed. Note: for Newsday) that he's interested in the audience rather than in scholarly interpretations, has underscored the farce half of Ionesco's `"tragic farce." Laughter is the central message in his splendid production. It's delivered by two master actors.