Saturday, December 20, 2008

Theater review: Dramaworks masters the absurd in 'The Chairs'

Dan Leonard and Barbara Bradshaw
are Old Man and Old Woman in
Palm Beach Dramaworks' production
of The Chairs.

By Hap Erstein
Need a reminder that life has no meaning? You could either turn on the news or head to Palm Beach Dramaworks and catch the company’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs.

Ionesco, a major figure of the Theater of the Absurd movement, took a dim view of human existence, but at least he did so with a wry sense of humor. Consider, for instance, his 1952 “tragic farce” about that meaninglessness, as well as our inability to communicate with each other.

To illustrate his point, he presents an elderly couple — Old Man (Dan Leonard) and Old Woman (Barbara Bradshaw) — who busy themselves by dragging onstage dozens of wooden chairs. They are preparing for the arrival of an Orator, a man only slightly more prompt than Samuel Beckett’s Godot, who will present the Old Man’s philosophy of life. Until then, the couple has its hands full greeting and conversing with their arriving, invisible, probably imaginary guests.

As if that premise were not absurd enough, it was given an additional comic spin by British playwright Martin Crimp, whose adaptation of The Chairs was showered with Tony nominations when it arrived on Broadway last year. Reports of that production suggest that the play became a proverbial “laugh riot,” while the Dramaworks version, staged by resident director J. Barry Lewis, seems more intent on establishing a melancholic mood with only occasional outbreaks of comedy.

Much of the humor comes from Pekinese-coiffed Bradshaw, one of the few area actors who can induce giggles by shuffling her feet. In the course of the compact, 80-minute evening, she adds a comically provocative tushy twitch, a risible crying jag and her tour de force, a fast-forward chair-lugging ballet which owes much to theatrical sleight-of-hand.

Leonard is a cut below Bradshaw, but he will do, notably when asked by her to do February and he launches into an endearing impersonation of Stan Laurel. If that is not a definition of absurdism, what is?

The two actors ping-pong dialogue to one another, reminiscing and bemoaning their pasts, which they recall quite differently. Much of it is defies logic and is repetitive, but if you let your mind detach from the expectations of rational sense, it has a satisfying poetic quality.

Michael Amico does his usual first-rate job with the scenic design, a room with enough doors and floor-to-ceiling windows to suggest the farcical potential in the play. Todd Wren’s lighting sets the autumnal mood and conveys a few of the script’s specified special effects, at least by Dramaworks’ standards.

Eventually The Orator (Shel Shanak) does show up, outfitted for Italian commedia dell’arte by way of Elvis Presley. But if you are still expecting to hear wisdom from him by that point, you have not been paying attention to Ionesco’s comic pessimism.

THE CHAIRS, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach, continuing to Feb. 1. Tickets: $40-$42, Call: (561) 514-4042.

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