In this theater image released by Pearl Theatre Company, Brad Heberlee, left, and Jolly Abraham are shown in a scene from “The Bald Soprano,” in New York. (AP Photo/Pearl Theatre Company, Jacob J. Goldberg)
NEW YORK (AP) — A “failure to communicate” does not even begin to describe what we have here.
The Pearl Theatre Company’s rousing production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic “The Bald Soprano” is a dreamlike symphony of nonsensical speech and disjointed associations, all intended to expose just how hopeless human communication really is.
The bizarre comedy opened Sunday at off-Broadway’s New York City Center and, for better or worse, is sure to send theatergoers away wondering, “What just happened?”
The Romanian-born, French-raised Ionesco wrote the existential farce in 1948 and it remains an enduring staple of the dramatic genre known as theater of the absurd. In Paris, the play has been in continuous performance since 1957.
This new English-language production, with translation from French by Donald M. Allen, is the first offering in the Pearl’s 2011-12 season and the latest product of the intrepid company’s dedication to producing classics of world theater.
Performed in about an hour, the one-act piece is set in a suburb of London, at the home of a bourgeois couple known cutely as Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Bradford Cover and Rachel Botchan).
At first glance, the Smiths seem to be a wholly ordinary, middle-aged, middle-income, British couple — a study in tweed and knit, seated leisurely in matching easy chairs.
Closer observation of their quaintly decorated living room reveals picture frames hanging upside-down from under a shelf and a carpet that is sky blue with white splotches resembling cumulus clouds.
It all suggests something isn’t quite right — up is down, down is up — a notion that is quickly confirmed once the dialogue begins.
And dialogue, at least in the conventional sense of the word, might not be the most fitting way to describe what Ionesco’s characters engage in.
It’s more like comically inane banter, in which the direction of each line often seems unrelated to those that preceded it, like a bowl of marbles spilling across the floor in every direction.
Before long, the doorbell rings, and the Smiths receive strange guests.
The Martins (Brad Heberlee and Jolly Abraham) are a couple who can’t seem to recall that they’re married or even how they know each other. Although vaguely familiar, they struggle to reconcile a string of curious coincidences, like the fact that they share the same address, sleep in the same bed and even have a child by the same name.
The preposterous, but charming, group is rounded out by the Smiths’ maid (Robin Leslie Brown) and the local fire chief (Dan Daily), who happen to be lovers.
Under smart direction by Hal Brooks, the six delight and entertain each other with stories, poems and debates, mixing wildly peculiar statements with extended silences, in which the characters seem to search for words or attempt to make sense of the gibberish they’ve just heard.
Ionesco’s absurd fantasy, with all its bewilderment and humor, seems to scream that no matter how much we interact with the people around us, true mutual understanding is just that — a fantasy.
As for understanding “The Bald Soprano,” which is playing at New York City Center through Oct. 23, Ionesco has entrusted that entirely subjective burden to his audience.