“I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners,” Edward Bond once said about himself. Britain’s perennially angry scribe graphically proves his point with “Chair,” a harrowing political allegory, set in some unnamed city in some future time, about the dire consequences when one citizen of a repressive society commits a forbidden act of kindness. Robert Woodruff’s superbly cast and flawlessly helmed production for Theater for a New Audience delivers the cautionary message in an artful, if chilling style that makes the skin-crawling cruelty no less easy to take.
Funsters, cover your eyes before they bleed. Bond’s excoriating attack on militaristic governments that control their citizens by ignoring human rights is almost unbearable to watch. (Lest we forget, scribe’s 1965 play, “Saved,” was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for its depiction of an infant being stoned in its carriage.)
The act of violence shown here is both more horrifying and more subtle. An old woman (indelibly played by Joan MacIntosh), her battered head and bloodied extremities mute testimony to the punishment she’s already received, is beaten without mercy by the panicked soldier escorting her to her execution. But before this gray-haired wraith can be dragged off to her death, she manages to touch and try to speak to the younger woman (possibly her daughter) who thought to help her by rushing into the street with a chair for the weary guard.
The moment of communication between the two woman — a violent embrace brilliantly staged through the wooden legs of the chair — is the kind of image that, once burned on the brain, will surely smolder there a while. Say, a decade or two or four.
Even so, that shattering moment seems almost benign compared to the far more graphic and over-the-top scenes of cannibalism and sexual sadism in this season’s other political horror-show, “Blasted,” written by Bond’s self-acknowledged acolyte, Sarah Kane. It appears as if Bond, also a published poet, has distilled his critical venom and sharpened his images of destruction over the years.
As befits the primo interpreter of Sam Shepard’s expressionistic plays, Woodruff is one helmer who stands up and salutes when he meets a commanding image. Utilizing the skills of his well-primed cast, he advances the tense narrative in photo-like pictures.
The play’s haunting opening tableau is an Edward Hopper-like view (set against David Zinn’s stark white-walled set and lighted with painful clarity by Mark Barton) of a thin, bedraggled looking woman trying to hide behind drawn curtains as she stares anxiously out the window. This is Alice, a cowed resident of the dangerous society we never see, but finally get to hear in a rush of sound composed by Michael Attias.
As played by Stephanie Roth Haberle, Alice appears to be a withdrawn and properly downtrodden citizen of the Orwellian world outside her window. But as this astonishing thesp communicates with fierce resolve, the compassionate Alice has hidden reserves of bravery — well illustrated during an excruciatingly tense interrogation conducted by Annika Boras as a government official.
Alice also has a secret, and his name is Billy, the foundling she rescued from the street when he was an infant and has been hiding from the authorities for 26 years. If Alice is a study in knotted nerves, Billy, as played by the prodigiously talented Will Rogers, is white noise — a volatile boy of a man stunted and half-crazed from years of confinement.
The sight of Billy twitching all over as he sits at a table compulsively coloring childish drawings is another one of those deeply branded images Bond specializes in. Let other playwrights shriek about the state of the world. Bond does it in his own, far deadlier fashion.