The Lesson / The Painting
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 10, 2006
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble brings the comically twisted world of playwright Eugene Ionesco vividly to life in The Lesson and The Painting, a double-bill of one-act plays. Directed with skillful specificity, and showcasing a trio of performances that are among the best in New York right now, these challenging and unusual texts will reward adventurous theatergoers who crave something beyond the norm.
First up is The Lesson, which centers on a private academic tutorial between an unnamed student and teacher. The Student is a young, eager girl who needs to prepare for an important exam. The Professor is nervous and flustered, but seems nice enough...at least, for the time being. He runs The Student through a gamut of subjects—linguistics, math, several foreign languages, etc.—so she can practice for her test. But, as the lesson goes on, The Professor and The Student find themselves less and less on the same page, until, finally, things get out of hand.
The Lesson shows that Ionesco doesn't think much of academia: the endless paragraphs of nonsensical theory The Professor spouts off eventually bores his young pupil (at one point, The Student even starts making fish faces in order to stay awake). But, there's also a strong charge of sexuality coursing through the proceedings. The Professor keeps his interest in The Student strictly professional until his desires overwhelm him, bringing The Lesson to a shocking and unexpected finish.
This is a highly-spirited and energetic production directed with gusto and panache by Amy M. Wagner. She has a real aptitude for Ionesco's brand of menacing absurdist humor, and pulls off The Lesson's numerous scary/funny moments wonderfully. Jennifer Curfman and John Lenartz make a dynamic duo as The Student and The Professor, respectively. They both deliver hilarious and admirably precise performances whose nuances have to be seen to be fully appreciated. Comic acting this accomplished doesn't come along every day.
Next is The Painting, a bizarre work about a negotiation between a struggling artist and a wealthy benefactor. The artist, known as The Painter, wants to sell his painting to the benefactor, known as The Stout Gentleman, for a good price. But, The Stout Gentleman intimidates and bullies The Painter, successfully lowballing him to an almost criminal degree. Soon after, however, it becomes clear why The Stout Gentleman covets the painting so much.
The humor and risk factors are ratcheted up a notch or two in The Painting, which is the more emotionally savage of the two plays here. The Stout Gentleman, in particular, is selfishly brutish. He keeps insisting that The Painter sit down even though there isn't a chair in the room. Later, we meet his decrepit, one-armed sister, Alice, who is forced to do all the housework. As usual, though, Ionesco has bigger things on his mind, and turns The Painting into a haunting look at how far one will go to attain beauty and fulfillment.
Director Kevin Confoy does a bang-up job with this warped funhouse of a play, handling Ionesco's verbal slapstick effectively. The Painting is also served by a powerhouse performance by Craig Smith as The Stout Gentleman. He hits all the right notes, and makes Ionesco's surreal world look like his natural habitat. Laura Piquado is snivellingly creepy as The Painter, and Angela Madden does a great job as the pathetic Alice. (The Lesson and The Painting also benefit from the presence of Sarah Hartmann, the only actor who appears in both plays: she's great.)
Anyone familiar with Ionesco's works will find much to like here, while theatergoers who don't know him couldn't ask for a better introduction to his unique idiom. Phoenix Theatre Ensemble does this absurdist master proud, and impresses with their remarkable range and scope. Any way you slice it, The Lesson and The Painting are well worth your time.