You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Chairs

There's a lot of fussing about seats in "The Chairs," the London revival of Eugene Ionesco's 1952 absurdist landmark, but the true fuss is likely to take place at the box office once word spreads about Richard Briers' performance.

Cast: Richard Briers (Old Man), Geraldine McEwan (Old Woman), Mick Barnfather (The Orator), Sarah Baxter (Old Woman, others).

There’s a lot of fussing about seats in “The Chairs,” the London revival of Eugene Ionesco’s 1952 absurdist landmark, but the true fuss is likely to take place at the box office once word spreads about Richard Briers’ performance. A co-production between the Royal Court and Simon McBurney’s Theatre de Complicite touring company, McBurney’s staging casts as radically new a light on the veteran English thesp as Ionesco did 45 years ago on the conventions of drama.

Even while audiences may readily absorb the imaginative leaps demanded by the writing, the leap made by the leading man is more immediately startling. There’s been something a little too cozy about Briers’ stage performances of late, whether partnering with Paul Eddington in David Storey’s “Home” or playing Lear or Vanya for Kenneth Branagh’s now-defunct Renaissance company. But as the 95-year-old Old Man, spouse for 75 years to 94-year-old Old Woman (Geraldine McEwan), Briers embodies the celebrated line of Ionesco’s existential kinsman Beckett that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Gamely anticipating the hordes of (unseen) visitors who fill the sea of chairs onstage, Briers’ nonagenarian janitor is ripe for a party whose trick turns out to be on him. “Can’t we just be happy with the little we have?” he asks his wife, whom McEwan enthusiastically (sometimes overenthusiastically, really) presents as an exhausted rag doll. But the answer is clear from Briers’ baleful eyes: Pain drives the character’s antics.

The garrulous couple spends the play awaiting the Orator, who, unlike Beckett’s Godot, does arrive, even if he turns out to be mute. But his appearance cues the pair’s departure from a life spent mostly isolated in a turret of sorts, surrounded by water (sound designer Paul Arditti makes much of the lapping water that begins the evening). Their language is self-aggrandizing and grandiose, but their fear is very real. Like the vaudevillians of Beckett’s plays, they yearn to leave a mark.

The physical centerpiece, as it must be, is the onstage gathering of chairs for an assemblage exhaustively chatted up but never glimpsed. Doorbells ringing ever more loudly as boats are heard arriving through the water, the performers make a dizzying comic gavotte of a sequence that almost equals the night raid in the National’s “Chips With Everything” as London’s leading extended display of stage business.

McBurney gets the frenzy and ferocity of such moments in a play aptly characterized as “a tragic farce.” But one wonders what the Court’s own Stephen Daldry might have done with a play that can sustain an even wilder staging than McBurney and his designers, the Brothers Quay, allow (the set machinations at the end don’t deliver the intended knockout). What’s left is a vision of two troupers played by troupers whose appetite for the theater seems happily ageless.

The Chairs

Royal Court downstairs at the Duke of York's, London; 550 seats; £19.50 ($32.50) top

Production: A Royal Court and Theatre de Complicite presentation, in association with the French Theater season, of the play in one act by Eugene Ionesco, adapted by Martin Crimp. Directed and choreographed by Simon McBurney.

Creative: Sets and costumes, the Quay Brothers; lighting, Paul Anderson; sound, Paul Arditti. Opened Nov. 24, 1997. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Richard Briers (Old Man), Geraldine McEwan (Old Woman), Mick Barnfather (The Orator), Sarah Baxter (Old Woman, others).

More Legit

  • 'Black Super Hero Magic Mama' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: 'Black Super Hero Magic Mama'

    What function do superhero stories play in American society? Are they merely escapist distractions for head-in-the-clouds teens, or could those same formats actually serve a practical function, providing useful tools for everyday life? Recognizing these comic book fantasies as by far the dominant form of contemporary mythmaking for a generation of young people, emerging playwright [...]

  • Danielle Brooks'Ain't Too Proud - The

    How 'Orange Is the New Black' Star Danielle Brooks Became a Broadway Producer

    Danielle Brooks earned a Tony nomination when she made her Broadway debut as Sofia in the 2015 revival of “The Color Purple,” but now the “Orange Is the New Black” star is working behind the scenes as a producer on the new jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” “I [...]

  • Ain't Too Proud review

    Broadway Review: 'Ain't Too Proud'

    In the wake of the long-running “Jersey Boys” and the short-lived “Summer,” director Des McAnuff is back on Broadway with another show built around the song catalog of a music act — and although “Ain’t Too Proud” has all the right sounds and slick moves, this bio-musical of the R&B vocal group the Temptations is [...]

  • 'White Noise' Theater Review: Suzan-Lori Parks

    Off Broadway Review: Daveed Diggs in 'White Noise'

    Any new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog / Underdog”) demands — and deserves — attention. And in its premiere production at the Public Theater, her latest, “White Noise,” opens with a burst of brainy energy that lasts through the first act. But it takes a nosedive in the sloppy second half, [...]

  • Alexander Dinelaris

    'Jekyll and Hyde' Movie in the Works Based on Broadway Musical

    The Broadway musical “Jekyll and Hyde” is getting the movie treatment from Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris. Dinelaris, who is writing and producing the adaptation, won an Oscar for the “Birdman” script and was a co-producer on “The Revenant.” He is producing “Jekyll and Hyde” as the first project under his New York-based development company, [...]

  • Sam Mendes

    Listen: The 'Balls-Out Theatricality' of Sam Mendes

    If you find yourself directing a Broadway play with a cast so big it includes a goose, two rabbits, more kids than you can count and an actual infant, what do you do? If you’re Sam Mendes, you embrace the “balls-out theatricality” of it all. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “There is a kind [...]

  • James Corden Tony Awards

    James Corden to Host 2019 Tony Awards (EXCLUSIVE)

    James Corden has been tapped to once again host the Tony Awards, Variety has learned exclusively. “The Late Late Show” host previously emceed the annual theater awards show in 2016, and won the Tony for best actor in a play for his performance in “One Man, Two Guvnors” in 2012. “I’m thrilled to be returning to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content