Murdering the Middle Class

The Bald Soprano directed by Lindsay Anderson last weekend at the Ex

THE BALD SOPRANO got its title when a rehearsing actor missed his lines before the opening performance and delivered something about a bald soprano. Eugene Ionesco liked the term enough to keep it as the play's name, and it's as good a label as any.

Elements of drawing room comedy and theatre of the absurd clash to give Ionesco's play the kind of dramatic tension that makes it simple to perform. A staccato delivery of lines can gloss over non-sequiturs and permits the development of superficially logical chains of reasoning with incredible conclusions, all with the general end of lampooning the English middle class.

The Bald Soprano takes two very English couples--English past the point of stereotyping--through an evening together. It begins as Mr. and Mrs. Smith sit, apparently after dinner, while he reads the Times and she darns his socks. Then it appears that dinner guests are coming, and when the Martins arrive they try to establish to each other's satisfaction that they are married. Nothing really happens, and doubt is immediately cast upon any detail that threatens to become so concrete as to endanger the pervading air of unreality in the evening. The four people spend the rest of their time conversing, interrupted only by a maid and a fire chief.

Susan Ehrlich and Pam Berlin stand out for their performances as Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Martin, respectively. Both of them convey a certain sense of painful and proper English sensibility without losing the pace of their lines. Paul Ling began his role as Mr. Smith very tensely, which became more appropriate as the play itself became more tense, but was initially somewhat awkward. Jean Kalavski babbled as the maid Mary in a relatively minor role that she handled well. Lindsay Davis's direction was equally competent; though he introduced nothing particularly novel into the performance.

THE PLOT EXISTS only as an excuse for a commentary on English life. The juxtaposition of ridiculous assertions, pursuit of any sane comment to an absurd extreme, and traditional shots at all symbols of Britannic complacency dominate the play without any competition from attempts at character development or plot conflict. It all manages to be very entertaining, and the actors, in this production deliver their lines quickly enough to build up a perverse momentum that carries the play through all but its most brutal moments.

But the performance at the Ex last week did falter occasionally. A series of incidents developing the idea that doorbells ring when no one is at the door is not really sustained by the cast. And the climactic scene--in which the two couples march ground in a circle screaming. "It's not that way it's over here," and jabbing their index fingers upward with increasing speed--is ridiculous rather than absurd.

Ionesco's Soprano is a small play that benefits from a small theatre; its intensely malicious approach would lose all its humor if played in a bigger setting, and Davis's production took advantage of the intimacy of the Ex. Like too many contemporary comedies-of-manners. The Bald Soprano, lacking any remarkable feats of inspiration appended by the director, would probably seem a little empty on any larger stage.