Time has not been kind to the theatre of the absurd, overtaking it, turning avant-garde into apres-garde -- and, with the ebb and flow of various vogues, that supreme absurdist Eugene Ionesco quietly receded on the world's stage horizon. Turns out, though, the sleeping giant was just taking a short nap. The power of his art is such that it only took a cracklingly good bolt of theatrical lightning to bring him back to life and fashion, for that's what struck London last November when Theatre de Complicite and the Royal Court jointly presented a brilliant production of The Chairs (in a new translation by Martin Crimp), directed by Simon McBurney and starring Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. Critics found themselves cheering the resurrection of Absurdism, a genre whose time has come -- again.
Even more startled by the show's success are its two stars, the hardest-working sixtysomethings in show business. "We still can't believe we're here doing this on Broadway," confesses Briers. "That's our second surprise. Our first was when we realized we had something important on our hands rather than, as Gerry said, 'a fringe product.' "
"That's right," pipes up his playing partner, cheerily seconding the motion. "We thought it was just going to be four weeks on tour and four weeks at the Royal Court, and that would be it. We were truly taken by surprise by the reaction to it. From the word go, there was something right about it."
One thing indelibly right about it is the impeccably timed teamwork of these two -- "a pair of old troupers still at the peak of their powers," as one reviewer put it -- and that highly exportable pleasure is something rarely seen outside London's West End. Briers has never been on Broadway before, and McEwan was last here 30
years ago in a Peter Schaffer double bill, The Private Ear and The Public Eye.
Television has spread their respective fame stateside -- "The Good Life" for him, "Mapp and Lucia" for her -- and Kenneth Branagh has done his part to increase their visibility on the feature-film front, finding places for them in his Henry V. He also cast Briers in Much Ado About Nothing, Frankenstein, In the Bleak Midwinter and Hamlet; and he opened up the door to directing for McEwan.
"That's something, isn't it? -- to say you've directed Kenneth Branagh." It is obvious she takes pride in the feat. "When he started off his Renaissance Theatre Company, he got Judi Dench to direct Much Ado About Nothing. Derek Jacobi directed him as Hamlet, and I directed As You Like It. He was Touchstone, the clown, and he was wonderful."
It was in this late-blooming role of director -- coupled, of course, with the ever-flickering antenna of an alert actress looking for a good role -- that led McEwan to The Chairs. "I was reading plays, as one does, and I thought, 'Oh, I'll have a look at Ionesco, but I should think it's old hat.' I had no idea [The Chairs] had so much in it for an audience. I thought it would be a play of its time -- the fifties -- but when I read it, I was immediately intrigued by it. Not only did it have two fabulous parts, it seemed to have resonances for now. I was fascinated by the basic idea of these two old people in the last hour or two of their lives. It seemed such a wonderful theatrical idea, such a pure piece of theatre. "Once I decided that I would like to do it, I thought, 'Well, who on earth could direct this and bring out all this fantastic, imaginative work and also challenge the actors into really playing these people?' I'd seen lots of Simon's work with Theatre de Complicite. His own productions very much have his stamp -- very original, very imaginative and poetic -- so I knew he'd be fabulous. I got in touch with him, and he immediately responded to the idea."
Two-and-a-half years rolled by, as McEwan and McBurney tried synchronizing schedules. Then Briers came aboard, and a co-production was struck between Theatre de Complicite and the Royal Court Theatre, where the first English-speaking production of The Chairs was performed exactly 40 years ago.
"It's very daunting to do," says Briers, "and very rewarding, but it takes a long time to get control of it. The audience always seems to be with you, though, in their laughter and in their silence. There's something hypnotic about it -- the lighting, the music and the effects -- it comes from one purely theatrical experience."
As two-handed one acts go, The Chairs is a two-seater, occupied by an ancient couple -- a 95-year-old janitor and his 94-year-old wife -- who live in a circular island tower. Every night of their 75-year marriage, they settle down to an evening of mind games and ritualistic reminiscences -- until this night. This is the night the old man is to deliver a message that has long gnawed on his addled brain -- one, he feverishly believes, that will save mankind -- and a mute orator has been summoned to articulate it properly before an audience that exists only in the minds of the odd old couple. An invisible multitude streams through the 19 doors of their living room while they frantically race about hobnobbing, finding necessary seating. Then, when all is in readiness and 61 chairs clutter the stage, they leap to their deaths in the mistaken belief that the mime will do justice to The Message.
Ionesco wrote The Chairs in 1952, 45 years before a group of California cultists committed suicide believing they'd hitch a ride out of this world on a comet -- and one year before Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. "The two are quite similar, in the beginning anyway," says Briers. "Both wrote dualogs with two people in an isolated place with possibly nothing outside but fallout or, to bring it up to date, anthrax."
It has been quite a journey, from an actress investigating a musty old classic to the cerebral fire-and-light show now in a limited run at the Golden (through June 13). "The germ started with me," says McEwan, "then Simon responded, and he took it from there. Still, it's satisfying to actually initiate something yourself instead of waiting for people to ask you to do things that you either want to do or don't want to do. It's a lovely feeling. The only thing lovelier would be that this created an Ionesco revival."