The Dock Brief and The Bald Soprano

At the Theatre Company of Boston, through this weekend

In the conception of director David Wheeler, The Bald Soprano,by Eugene Ionesco, is neither farcical nor dead serious. Rather, like the hysteria of a madman, it is full of terribly important messages which are difficult to interpret.

The scene of the hysteria in Wheeler's Soprano is the living room of the Smith's bourgeois home in the suburbs (Ionesco's Soprano originally exploded in a British parlor). On the left hand side of Don Berry's spare and perfectly appropriate set, Mr. Smith (Jerry Gershman) digests the evening newspaper, while on the right Mrs. Smith (Jo Lane) thinks over the dinner they may or may not have eaten--it never becomes clear which.

When the Martins arrive, the Smiths, who have been waiting for hours, leave to get dressed for this unexpected visit. While the Smiths are gone, Mr. Martin (Don Berry) discovers to his astonishment that he has met Mrs. Martin (Betsy White) before, that they live at the same address in the same apartment in the same room and each has a daughter with the same colored eyes; they must be married, they conclude! But the maid (Mary Hartwell) tells the audience they are not. And on and on.

At least two reactions are possible to this protracted, and at times painful, joke. The maid's is one: "Who has any interest in prolonging this confusion? Let's just leave things as they are."

The other leads below the elementary school syntax and semantic void which Jonesco's characters utter to the recognition that what makes sense in and of this play is the tone of voice, namely boredom. Not only do the player's voices range systematically from torpid boredom to orgiastic boredom; their words do, too. Nearly every sentence is, by itself, a cliche. Juxtaposed, the frightening novelty of the message of cliches suggests that novel messages are no more than cliches, artfully rearranged. Thus the characters--they too are not individuals, but cliches--break down their own messages and shout the ultimate cliches: A, B, C, D, E, F ... An understanding of this tone of voice leads to paralysis: what can one say that does not reduce to the ultimate cliche?

Without Wheeler's superb actions, the play's tone of voice would not, of course, have rung so clear. The Smiths and the Martins establish the overly articulated diction of the whole play, but the abyss of the inane is never fully plumbed until Paul B. Price enters as the Firechief. He has come to put out a fire and finds instead the girl (the maid) who first put out his fires. He stays to bore the company with astonishing narratives. Price delivers his monologues as a child would; his manner is everyman's who comes for fire and stays to bore.

Price incidentally plays the lead in the other piece on the same Theatre Company program, The Dock Brief, by John Mortimer. In comparison with the bite of The Bald Soprano, the whimsy of The Dock Brief is so vapid that it is tolerable only because it begins the evening. Little is news in The Dock Brief except perhaps the performances of the actors, Price and Edward Finnegan, which create imaginary or past worlds off the stage far more interesting than the one on it.

The evening of contemporary theatre in the little Hotel Bostonian Playhouse can be doubly sour if the acid of The Bald Soprano dissolves the sugar of The Dock Brief. Or it can be doubly rewarding. But there is no easy metaphor to explain how, so you will have to see it yourself.