Ionesco called his 1952 play “The Chairs” a “tragic farce,” and ideally it should horrify and amuse in equal measure. Florinel Fatulescu’s production for Stages Theatre Center, which has specialized in the French absurdist’s work since the theater’s inception, doesn’t quite walk the fine line between those antithetical reactions, tipping to-ward comedy a little too much to give this difficult play its full impact.
Jeremy Lawrence and Barbara Bain play the principal characters, called Old Man and Old Woman, who address each other grandiosely as General Factotum and Semiramis. Their feelings of inconsequence also come sharply through in the woman’s constant parroting of phrases assuring her companion that he “could have been” a paragon in any number of professions. Looking ragged and utterly without sensible occupation, both have reached old age without achievement.
Chattering sometimes at each other and sometimes to themselves, they wait for the arrival of the Orator, who will deliver the Old Man’s world-changing manifesto, the final, consequential act in a life of no consequence. In the silliness of their behavior, its pathetic futility — they drag in dozens of chairs for spectators who remain imaginary — we see a grim picture of all human effort, our striving for a sense of importance that is desperately needed but always elusive. Chanting alternately about wanting the comfort of his mother and about his abandonment of his own son (who may be imaginary — there’s quite a bit of these two in Albee’s George and Martha), the Old Man is also a picture of humanity at its most simplistic and selfish, wanting attention but indifferent to all others.
Bain’s Old Woman, with a gaunt stare that goes to the bone alternating with a gruesomely girlish giggle, manages to retain a sufficient air of deep humanity. But Lawrence is too much the clown to make the Old Man’s plight shock us with the horror of recognition. His wispy gray hair and quizzically befuddled expression recall Gene Wilder, and his endearing waddle and nasal lilt are the stuff of comedy, too. So when the Orator finally arrives, far too late to save this pair from despair, and delivers the play’s final joke — a manifesto that’s but a stream of gibber-ish — we can exit with a fairly easy laugh, and shake off a play that should be as chilling as it is silly.