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Pomp and Circumstance 

Two poor old folks with grand dreams people this farce about middle-class vanity

Wednesday, Feb 19 2003
Eugene Ionesco wrote bitter satires of the "human condition" that were, in the end, simply satires of the French bourgeoisie. The Chairs is about a dysfunctional old couple preparing for a big speech by the husband in front of dignitaries of state and all the great lights of French society -- who are imaginary, but who still need lots of chairs. The Aurora Theatre has revived the play in a dilapidated, cheerfully horrid style so close to George Booth's New Yorker cartoons that I was surprised to find him not listed in the program.

Booth draws those discombobulated old people living in shabby garrets with one naked light bulb and a spraddle-legged cat or dog. (He also inks The New Yorker's mascot dog.) Gregory Dunham's set shows the yellow-painted inside of a decaying seaside home, with candle lanterns on the walls and a tremendous ugly, spindly gazebo dome overhead, like something salvaged from the storm-ruined Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. A poisonous green light leaks in from outside, along with ocean sounds, and actors Barbara Oliver and Gerald Hiken look like two aging bohemians going to seed in moldy clothes from an attic trunk.

Ionesco would have been pleased. He housed his Old Man and Old Woman in what a Tennessee Williams character might call "reduced circumstances," then graced them with the gift of hope. Oliver and Hiken do beautiful work with both extremes, with the hope as well as the despair. Hiken looks boyish and rumpled, rather like a blown-out dandelion; he's full of a feckless, churning energy that sometimes leaves him collapsed on the floor. (He gives terrifying tantrums.) Oliver's Old Woman has all the empty girlish politesse of an elderly bourgeoise, but she's also a ruthless nag, reducing her husband to childishness and then bucking up his ego again. "You could have been -- a great naval commander!" she says, even if he's only a janitor now, with all his talent pissed away. But doesn't he still have a message? Something to say to the world? "I have a message, that's right!" he says. "I'm not like the others, I have ideals."

So they prepare for the Old Man's big speech. Invisible guests enter through a revolving door, and the Old Woman has to rush around looking for chairs. When the guests arrive, she changes from a fierce bully to a harried servant-girl, bossed by the bellowing Old Man. The room fills up. The Old Man and the Old Woman distract themselves with the sort of empty chatter you hear at dinner parties; they agree and flatter and flirt and cajole. They do everything, in other words, that an old married couple would do if they found themselves suddenly at the center of the world's attention.

It doesn't matter how rich or poor they seem to be, or what the Old Man does for a living: The Chairs is basically a farce about middle-class vanity, like Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. Ionesco's experimental tricks -- his minimalism, his conceit of writing "anti-plays" -- don't save The Chairs from slightness or make it somehow universal. It's a simple farce for two clownish actors, with none of the resonance of Ionesco's greatest work (Rhinoceros, Exit the King). The Chairs takes only 80 minutes, but it still has longueurs, moments when the characters repeat themselves and you have to remind yourself to be interested in a playwright's extended joke about the notion of writing plays at all.

The Aurora, though, has mounted a near-perfect production. Cliff Mayotte has directed Oliver and Hiken to a kind of blustery fever pitch, and Trish Mulholland is a seamless, Chaplin-esque orator (and delivers the show's punch line). Maggi Oakley's costumes match Dunham's decadent, crumbling set, and David Reyes' sound design adds a nice march of drums and low accordion music while the chairs pile up in the room. Pegeen McGhan's forest of odd-shaped driftwood chairs is also clever.

The play is still relevant, too: Watching people carry on conversations with friends who aren't even there is just as silly now as it was in 1952, when The Chairs premiered, even if listening to cell phone conversations on the sidewalk (for example) has dulled our sense of the absurd.


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