Monday, October 3, 2011

"The Bald Soprano" - Non-sequitur hilarity

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Jacob J. Goldberg

Did you ever wonder why newspapers always list the age of a person when they died but never their age when born? Or if someone is actually there when the doorbell rings? These and other questions are not answered in the Pearl Theatre Company's delightful presentation of Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Soprano.

Ionesco, it should be explained, is a master of theatre of the absurd, where linear logic doesn't always apply. The playwright wrote this work in response to his attempts to learn the English language, with a result that is somewhat satirical, somewhat confusing and always hilarious. As Mary the maid (Robin Leslie Brown) points out, everyone is not what they seem to be. (It should also be noted that Mary's real name is Sherlock Holmes.)

Things start out in the quiet parlor of the Smiths, a typical English couple living in the suburbs of London. They and their children have had a lovely English dinner, drunken English water and now Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Bradford Cover, Rachel Botchan) are enjoying the English evening and discussing such things as the passing of the late Bobby Watson, who never married and left a wife, also named Bobby Watson, and never had children, only a son and a daughter, each also named Bobby Watson. Then the clock on the mantle starts chiming, and chiming, and chiming as the Martins (Brad Heberlee, Jolly Abraham) arrive for dinner but don't seem to recognize one another (how curious) and try to figure out where they have seen each other before.

As the play careens from one situation to another, taking pot shots at the sexes and society and logic in general, the evening evolves/devolves into story telling and cross conversations, ones often a beat out of sync, helped in no small part by The Fire Chief (Dan Daily). There are also outbursts of emotion and completely foreign expressions as the audience is swept along in this tidal wave of insanity.

What makes the entire play such a joy is the complete seriousness and utter lack of outward humor by the various characters in relating the dialogue and dealing with the confounding circumstances presented. This only serves to make the show that much more hilarious. (There's also continual breaking of the fourth wall). It also helps that Ionesco made sure his script was nicely compact, with the work moving quickly, striking hard when necessary and never overstaying its welcome. Credit also goes to Donald M. Allen for his wonderful translation of the original text.

Acting is excellent, the six characters playing off each other like a well-oiled machine and not allowing for any dead spaces as things move forward (non-linearly, of course).

Botchan presents a good English wife in Mrs. Smith; a staid, proper and repressed woman, moving ever so slowly at times for maximum comic effect. Cover portrays Mr. Smith as a strong patriarch: brusque, stern and with frequent outburst of temper which might be frightening were it not all so funny. Heberlee and Abraham are good as the earnest Martins, each matching the other matching the line for line and action for action; showing themselves as two other English folks, though perhaps just a hair less steeped in the English tradition than the Smiths. Brown has some good comic moments as the maid-with lines uttered in all utter seriousness, just like the rest of the company-and Daily makes an enjoyable if somewhat woebegone Fire Chief; a sort of lost soul looking for a place to land.

Hal Brooks' direction is very strong, working with the actors to bring the tale to life with just the right amount of pacing to make the end project come off as less than a farce and more than a sitcom; with punctuations and emphasis in all the right places. It also helps that none of the actors milk their lines to get an extra laugh; rather they let everything come across quite naturally as it were.

Harry Feiner's set of the Smith's living room/parlor is nicely appropriate, though one may note that the dishes on the shelves, not to mention the shelves themselves, are upside down. Sounds design by M.L. Dogg is good; Stephen Petrilli's lighting works nicely with the piece and the costumes by Barbara A. Bell are lovely to look at.

The Bald Soprano (and yes there is an explanation for the title in there somewhere) makes for quiet the enjoyable journey through the absurdity that is the English language, with more than a few delightful twists and turns along the way.

The Bald Soprano
Featuring: Bradford Cover (Mr. Smith), Rachel Botchan (Mrs. Smith), Brad Heberlee (Mr. Martin), Jolly Abraham (Mrs. Martin), Robin Leslie Brown (Mary), Dan Daily (The Fire Chief)

Written by Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Donald M. Allen
Directed by Hal Brooks
Scenic Designer: Harry Feiner
Costume Designer: Barbara A. Bell
Lighting Designer: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Production Stage Manager: Erin Albrecht

Presented by the Pearl Theatre Company at New York City Center Stage II

131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or

Running Time: 65 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 23, 2011

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