After the Chairs, a new play by David Koteles that is premiering at the Fresh Fruit Festival, is a beautiful and moving work about—well, quite a lot of things, really: life, death, family, aloneness, theater: being human. It's been stunningly realized by Koteles' frequent collaborator Jason Jacobs in a spare, thoughtful production that features a hospital bed, an IV on a portable stand, and many chairs. The cast of three—Allen Warnock, Don Cummings, and Chris Van Strander—is superb.
The play is, indeed, after The Chairs, by which I mean that it takes Ionesco's absurdist classic from the 1950s as both inspiration and starting point. But what Koteles has made here is something very different from that work; this is not an update or transposition, but something new and strikingly different, even though the similarities are there for all to see.
The setting is a hospital room. Marc has been here for more than four months, and though the disease he is suffering from is never named, its devastation is apparent. With him is Richard, his partner (other terms of endearment don't seem to suit these two). After some mundane discussion of the weather and Marc's refusal to eat breakfast, their conversation turns, more or less out of the blue, to the subject of who will be calling on Marc today. And then, taking Ionesco's cue, there's the sound of a doorbell. Is it the nurse's station? No, it seems to be connected to Marc's room, as Richard ushers in an invisible guest who turns out to be Karen, Marc's high school girlfriend. Richard goes off to bring Karen a chair.
More doorbells follow, along with more unseen (by us) guests, and more chairs. Soon the stage is filled with them, and with the buzz of a party atmosphere as all manner of personalities from Marc's past arrive, everyone from his boss to his sister to a troupe of drag queens. The party is at once hilarious and ridiculous and wistful. There's a sense of the aloneness that a dying man must feel and that the man who loves him must also feel—different kinds, these. And there's almost a pageant-like atmosphere as, while they entertain their multitudes, Richard and Marc reflect on a variety of topics that pervade American life in this dizzingly disconnected century of ours.
Warnock and Cummings do spectacular work here, making the chemistry of this couple palpable for the audience, and also rendering all of their invisible co-stars somehow fully dimensional. Jacobs' direction is tight and smart and Koteles' script is by turns funny, touching, and ineffably rueful. Van Strander is memorable in what amounts to a cameo. And what those chairs all turn out to signify just about took my breath away when I understood.
Catch After the Chairs at Fresh Fruit if you can; it's as fine a drama as anything on view in NYC right now. Hopefully a long long life is in store for this remarkable work.