PEOPLE SOMETIMES leave an Ionesco play feeling stupid. A crazy avalanche of absurdity has careened down and bowled them over, and they're left almost punchy, distanced from the world. Some intellectual force of habit makes them feel uneasy, as though they are missing out by not having a clear picture of what arises out of Rhinocerous or The Bald Soprano--some coherent and all-embracing recollection of a theme on all its levels.
But this sort of confusion is not the playwright's objective. Ionesco seems to want his audience to experience the absurdity of life, not to understand it. He wants us to give ourselves over to the experience as though it were reality itself, and accept the insights, the laughter and the horrors like a volley of random shots--some hit, and some don't "Conclusions" are not only unimportant, they contradict the salient point.
When The Chairs is performed at the Hub Theater Center, then, in the basement of the Old West Church where the stage seems to merge with the seating arrangements, the intimacy is a success. There is a special element in this play that cries out for empathy, and it is fitting that the actors brush the knees of those sitting in the front row. The Chairs, which was first produced in 1952--a few months before Beckett's Waiting for Godot--depends upon this kind of closeness because there is a dream audience in the action of the play. People are assembled to hear a message. A 95-year-old lighthouse keeper lives with his 94-year-old wife in the middle of a vast sea "stretching as far as the horizon." He has been nothing and done nothing in his life, only repeated the same empty gestures and mused the same useless dreams, pathetic and insanely bored, weakly assuring himself that he has realized his potential at his job as "general factotum." He talks of his message right away, of the word that he will reveal to mankind before his death. The whole universe has been waiting, and he will soon unveil the truth, redeeming everything and making his own life worthwhile. When he decides to go through with it, he invites all of humanity to his tower to listen.
The guests begin to arrive and the couple make accommodations for them, even though the visitors are invisible or non-existent or a dream. But the man and woman make small talk and scurry around gathering chairs, first politely and then like demons. More "guests" arrive, more chairs accumulate. We in the audience wait, too, for the appearance of the orator, whom the old man has hired to speak on his behalf. For the sake of suspense, and for the sake of the climax when the message is finally delivered, the distinction between those inside the play and those outside of it is, appropriately, kept nebulous.
This lack of distancing serves another purpose. In Ionesco, style is a matter of short, enigmatic statements couched between ramblings of apparent irrelevancy, nothing following logically. With so little attention paid to causation, the words seem disconnected from the character who speaks them, from the setting, and from the dramatic situation. Thus the language is constantly in danger of appearing so far out of context that it zooms up to epigrammatic proportions dripping with symbolic significance. In general, this kind of pedestal profundity is undesirable: the Hub's production leaves it out.
ALL OF THIS is not to say that an Ionesco play should be a cozy, gather-round-the-fireside affair. If we should remain close to the action, then we should also be appalled by what we see. In order to help us draw back in horror, the thick and ghastly paste of wrinkled contortion that the players call make-up gives things a masked, tragic look. Ionesco deemed the play a "tragic farce," and the bare, microcosmic setting fortifies the impression of Greek drama: it caters to the essential formality built into the play.
When it comes to actual execution, however, the play caves in. In this theater of non-sequitur, a wonderful sense of the bizarre often drives the play: the audience stays poised to see what new strangeness is in store, because anything can happen. In The Chairs, this finds expression in an oceanic ebb and flow of energy. The actors have to set up chairs at a loud and feverish pitch one instant, and subside into deathly silence and inactivity the next. The varying dynamics of the play as it is written are brilliant, but the demands imposed upon the actors are rigorous: they have to carry hundreds of invisible people--not to mention the people in the audience--along this roller coaster, and sustain it all until the climax. In this production, the actors keep losing grip. We wallow in monotony until a particular line catches us suddenly and throws our heads back as the ride starts again for a while.
If the actors had less limited styles, then perhaps they could bring it off from beginning to end. The old woman has fine gestures but a redundant voice, while the man has the voice but not the gestures. His idea of old age is to teeter and lurch stiffly, like a poorly-rendered Walter Brennan--stilted and mechanical. The woman acquires a more natural and varied style of movement and sticks to it: it works better. But her grandmotherly, shivering voice begins to drone after a while. Her husband's voice on the other hand, takes on a detached, radio-announcer tone that parodies itself and is perfect for absurdity. He sounds like a voice from the Firesign Theater--which at its best approaches an absurdist theater of the seventies.
The Chairs is a play that can usually carry its own weight, even when the production goes limp from time to time. If you like Ionesco, then this production is professional enough to hit hard in a sporadic way.