nytheatre.com review by Pete Boisvert
December 10, 2008
Humanity's become a product and when humanity is a product, you get Auschwitz and you get Chair.
- Edward Bond, The Guardian, April 5, 2000 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2000/apr/05/artsfeatures2)
It should be no surprise that Chair, the new Edward Bond play freshly opened at the Duke on 42nd Street, is no cheery romp through the Garden of Earthly Pleasures. Bond has a well-earned notoriety for writing brutal, terrifying plays and Chair certainly lives up to that reputation. Bond's theme here is the dehumanization of the individual by the state, and he pursues this theme with a steadfast resolve.
Set in the dystopian future of 2077 amid the strictures of a fascist, totalitarian state, Chair is a truly bleak theatrical experience. The play is divided into a series of scenes titled Pictures. The action takes place almost entirely in the flat of Alice (Stephanie Roth Haberle), an aging citizen who is mostly confined to her own home. There she lives with and cares for Billy (Will Rogers), a young man whom she is keeping hidden in the flat. For reasons that are teasingly revealed, Billy is completely unsocialized; although he is in his mid 20s, he moves and talks like a small child and obsessively colors with his crayons.
Billy and Alice spend much of the early part of the play peering from their curtained window, observing a soldier who is escorting a familiar-looking prisoner. Alice carefully monitors Billy's access to the outside world to ensure the world remains unaware of his presence. On a suggestion from the boy, she leaves the apartment to bring the soldier a chair to rest in while waiting for the bus, as well as to get a closer glimpse of his ward.
This act of kindness and curiosity quickly spirals into a brutal incident between Alice, the Soldier (Alfredo Narciso), and his Prisoner (Joan MacIntosh). MacIntosh is a haunting presence as the savage Prisoner; in a beautiful moment of connection with Haberle, literally staged inside the chair's debris, she pours a world of meaning into gesture and wordless noises.
Up this point, the play evokes a chillingly brutal but often detached feeling of dread. The piece jolts to life in the Fourth Picture, as we are introduced to the Welfare Officer. Dispatched to investigate the incident on the street, the Officer arrives at Alice's flat to conduct an interview with her regarding her actions and intents. Annika Boras is electric in the role, deftly manipulating Alice with an uncaring, parasitic form of nurturing while coldly advocating the state's encroaching caretaker role. Haberle comes into her own here as well; her beleaguered victim snaps sharply into focus under the lens of Boras's gaze. Despite a questionable directorial choice at the end of the scene which seems a bit heavy handed, this is the clear centerpiece of the play, and the one moment that seems greater than the sum of its parts.
Rogers has a very difficult role as the sheltered man-child. Billy has been cut off from the rest of humanity, and his social development is severely retarded. Rogers roots himself well in the gangly physicality of the part, but too often veers into broad caricature. The few laughs in the show are his, but they come at a jarring price for the audience. Haberle fares better as the justifiably paranoid Alice. A jumble of fear and exacting self-control, Alice grips onto existence with a white-knuckled intensity. Her performance is littered with subtle details, and is quite moving and engaging.
Director and longtime Bond collaborator Robert Woodruff keeps the tone of the play cool and distant throughout. Featuring a brutally minimalist set designed by David Zinn, the stage is stripped down to appear almost naked. Mark Barton's light design complements this bleakness with a cold, crisp palette. Long, blank white walls are broken up by child-like crayon drawings, scribbled on large pieces of paper. A small table and a few chairs give something of an anchor to the set, but the sparse expanse seems to engulf the actors throughout the show.
The horror of Chair doesn't come in spurts of blood or passionate emotion. Rather, the dread imbued in the audience is a barren and empty one. In a play where kindness is a capital offense, our connection to humanity is the first casualty.