Ever since they upped my dose of Celexa, I rarely see life as a Sisyphean trudge through the void, but then again, I didn't live through two world wars and the dawn of the atomic age. Eugene Ionesco did, and like Samuel Beckett, whom he beat to the stage, he wrote plays set in an absurd world, one rich in cliché and artifice and impoverished of meaning. Though the Guthrie Lab's production of The Chairs isn't oppressively dire, it's faithful to Ionesco's outlook, which seems to revise Aeschylus's belief that "through suffering comes truth" to "through suffering comes truth, but it's probably not really true, and what difference does it make?"
The good news is that Ionesco's revision is more poetic and funnier than the above condensation might suggest, and New York-based director Daniel Aukin gives the show a light touch, emphasizing the comedy and parody in Jim Lewis's moderately updated translation. The play concerns a geriatric couple that lives alone on an island in what might be a lighthouse. The Old Man (Christopher McCann) is an anguished janitor with a message for the world he's been waiting nearly a century to deliver. His wife, the Old Woman (Barbara Bryne), alternately babies and badgers her husband about his squandered genius.
This "genius" is of the type only a wife of 70 years could recognize. Bryne beams with pride when McCann offers a nonsensical, Stan Laurel-inspired "impression" of the month of February (one of 12 months the Old Man hates), and she mechanically parrots his conviction that his "system" could "save the world." On the night we find the two, the Old Man is finally set to give his philosophical system a public airing, and has even hired a professional orator to give wing to his potentially panacean ideas.
Soon, the guests begin to arrive--colonels, old flames, picture framers, toddlers, journalists, emperors--all of whom are invisible to the audience. The room begins to bustle with dumb-show frenzy as the couple struggles to find enough seating for the phantom crowd and maintain order before the arrival of the orator (a spectral, foppish Charles Schuminski). When the play premiered in Paris in 1952, Ionesco prevailed on the director to make the visible characters "as nonexistent as the invisible ones." The Chairs seeks to tear at the divide between reality and fantasy, and expose both as vacuous. The two main characters are by design scattered, inconsistent, and confounded. When the Old Man reveals a hint of his ideology, it's a conflation of Marxism and capitalism that only Deng Xiaoping could love.
This philosopher-fool is by turns infantile, pompous, goofy, and stately, and his addled angst is the broken heart of what Ionesco called a "tragic farce." McCann, who's suited to the show's demanding pantomime, particularly shines at exploring the play's farcical elements, but also brings out the lyricism in Ionesco's monologues and disjointed dialogue. His elastic-faced befuddlement with the unexpected turnout is consistently charming, and he does a nice Buster Keaton during a brief musical passage. Guthrie mainstay Bryne gamely tackles a role that offers less meat than McCann's and, like her partner, is most effective when the play is at its silliest.
Yet to the extent that the characters seem as unreal as their noncorporeal co-stars, it's hard for the actors to make the tragic elements of the play felt. If you can see them as representative Hollow People in a meaningless world, I suppose they're as tragic as Antigone and Haemon. But the play's societal critiques and dire brand of existentialism seem a bit trapped in time, saddled to post-war shock and a Stalin-era disillusionment with leftist utopias.
Which isn't to say The Chairs is an unpleasant sit. In the Old Man's aforementioned speech to his majesty, McCann plays with the comedy of the pompous janitor's unctuous fealty and persecution complex. True, the words don't mean much, but they're beautiful--the poetry of cliché.