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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on April 22, 1998. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `The Chairs’

Almost no stage business is as funny as the sight of

characters in a bedroom farce who find themselves faced with making

frantic entrances and exits through doors, windows, and closets. No

farce, however, can best Eugene Ionesco’s "The Chairs" for

the scene in which The Old Woman, with a "Beat the Clock"-like

initiative, first walks, then dashes, then sprints in and out of the

room’s seven doors to fetch as many chairs as she can. That she has

seemingly been able to find them, haul, sometimes hurl, them in —

and in a matter of (what seems like) seconds — from places unknown

beyond the doors is one of the few truly great madcap scenes in theater.

The roar of an audience laughing in unison, and the final approval,

as demonstrated by many curtain calls, says something about the audience

responding responsibly to the pleasures of the Theatre de Complicite/Royal

Court Theatre production of Ionesco’s "The Chairs." Although

a strong production was directed by John Morrison for the Pearl Theater

Company last June, this more extravagant staging by Simon McBurney

is perhaps a bit riper for its racier intimations and its more raucously

paced lunacies. Even in its 12-week limited run, this "Chairs"

will return to Ionesco the public attention only a Broadway production

can command.

McBurney’s also uses some spiffy special effects to further validate

his respect for Ionesco’s absurdities. The wittily incorporated enhancements

that mark the designers’ contributions — Quay Brothers (setting)

and Paul Anderson (lighting) — are quite in tune with the logical

double-talk that propels Ionesco’s great tragi-comic play.

I can’t help but be impressed how the illogical premise of "The

Chairs" remains frightening today. Also the play’s hilariously

despairing humor sounds as profoundly skewed as it did the first time

I saw a production some 40 years ago.

That "The Chairs" still stuns is due in large part to the

extraordinary performances by two of Britain’s distinguished actors,

Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers, who play the nonagenarian couple

that resides on an island in a round house of many doors. Their eccentric,

but familiar, behavior and idle chatter are designated to make a mockery

of the resonating redundancies of life. As if they themselves were

irrevocably lost in the illusory dreams and delusional reminiscences

of their long-married characters, the comically disheveled McEwan

and Briers are at once hypnotic and harmonious.

Briers is terrific as the questionably lucid and quizzically forgetful

Old Man with the self-ascribed label "master of the mop and bucket."

A vision to behold is McEwan who, with her gray hair sprouting in

bunched clusters about her head, and her tattered house dress and

baggy stockings locked in perpetual disagreement, is, by turns, poignant

and hilariously unpredictable as the alternately caring and condescending

Old Woman.

At the beginning of the play, we are caught up in the couple’s conjured

memories and childish cooing. If the Old Woman cannot help reminding

the Old Man that he missed the boat, the Old Man remains optimistic.

He has invited guests to hear his long-awaited message to the world,

to be delivered by a professional Orator (given a horrific yet humorous

twist by Mick Barnfather).

As the guests (all unseen) arrive, first singly, then in pairs, and

finally in uncontrollable droves, the Old Woman frantically attempts

to accommodate the throngs, even selling programs. If you think the

build up to the message is a panoply of articulate gibberish, just

wait until you hear the last, somewhat chilling words of the Orator.

It is easy to understand how this production caused a stir in London’s

West End last November. This classic of the noteworthy "theater

of the absurd" genre is making its long overdue visit to Broadway.

Don’t wait for an invitation. Join the guest list. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

The Chairs, Golden Theater, 252 West 45 Street, 212-239-6200.

$35 to $60. To June 13.

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