For many who lived through the madness of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, the so-called "theater of the absurd" must have seemed like simple realism. After the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, after the concentration camps and the threat of nuclear war, who could pretend that real life was logical?
The French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco was one of those who decided to drop the pretense. He developed a style of theater in which things happen merely because they happen. The actors are like insects in a child's ant farm, pursuing their frantic activities under the cold eye of a careless, irresponsible god.
New as all of this was in 1951, when "The Chairs" was written, it has since become familiar through the work of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. It has become in its own way as conventional as French farce.
Simon McBurney's superb production for the England-based Theatre de Complicite (now at the Golden) masters those conventions but also makes them new. Even while delighting in Ionesco's absurd exaggerations, it retains a core of recognizable humanity. It reminds us, above all, that the weirdness is rooted in reality.
The play centers on an ancient married couple, living alone in a vast building surrounded by water. The old man has a message for the world, and has hired an orator to deliver it. He has invited the cream of society to hear it. The doorbells begin to ring. The old couple talks to invisible characters. The stage fills up with empty chairs.
This is, of course, a game of cruel illusions and false expectations. In the abstract, it can be a rather arid exercise. But by casting two great English character actors, Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers, in the central roles, McBurney has made it startlingly vivid and deliciously funny.
The performances are neither completely stylized nor entirely realistic, but an uncanny blend of both. Briers is a down-in-the-mouth clown, a battered marionette whose puppet master barely bothers to pull the strings.
McEwan moves with the painful, jerky motion of a clockwork bird whose springs have gone rusty. She talks like a very old and very mad Shirley Temple. She is at once grotesque and pitiful, by turns wheedling and domineering. It is an astonishing performance.
And it is, most importantly, of a piece with the production's powerfully imagined postapocalyptic world. McBurney's direction and the Quay Brothers' very clever set pick up, as McEwan does, on the eerie mix of the banal and the cataclysmic in Ionesco's writing.
With everything moving in the same demented direction, the result is an absurdly good evening of theater.
Eugene Ionesco, the Romania-born French playwright disliked being called "an absurdist," yet, in the friendliest of all possible ways, that is precisely what he was. Indeed, it was he who provided a powerful dramatic thrust to the hallucinatory fantasies of absurdist plays, one remove from reality yet probing into the deepest psychological recesses of our collective unconsciousness.
Sounds serious, even solemn, doesn't it? In fact, his early play "The Chairs," which was revived in a freshly sympathetic translation by Martin Crimp at the Golden Theater last night, is screamingly funny. It is only later that you might remember that nightmares can also provoke screaming. It's a question of perspective.
This nuttily fearsome nightmare element, though having something in common with the bleak if also comic landscape of Samuel Beckett's darker thoughts, has a definite pictorial element. At times, it is as if the surrealistic images of the painter Max Ernst had sat up and started to write plays.
Ionesco himself called "The Chairs" a tragic farce - the tragedy is the tragedy of life and the farce is, well, just the same, the tragedy of life. But Ionesco also believed that the theater was a place of spectacle - strange spectacle.
Here, an old married couple in their mid-90s are holed up in some kind of tower, or lighthouse, surrounded by water, which we see and hear lapping outside as the play opens.
Approaching death, the old man, with the loyal assistance of his wife, wants to impart to the world what he has learned from his long sojourn in it. Uncertain of his own eloquence, he has persuaded an Orator to speak his thoughts for him.
Now, the old couple are getting a ballroom ready for the arrival of guests, putting down a vast assortment of chairs. At last, the guests start to arrive, yet there are never enough chairs, despite the couple's frantic efforts.
While all these people are evidently visible to the old couple, we can neither see nor hear them. All we see is a meeting of chairs that are spilling all over the set. At last, the Orator makes his arrival - and, oddly enough, although we in the audience can actually see him, he looks and moves like a tailor's dummy.
This wonderful production, transferred from London and devised by Britain's famed Theatre de Complicite, has been staged with enormous sensibility and cunning by the Complicite's artistic director, Simon McBurney. It has spectacular designs by the Quay Brothers and subtly imaginative lighting by Paul Anderson.
Yet, as Ionesco would have been the first to agree, the theatricality of the piece depends entirely on the actors - who have to make you believe in the rationality of this cascade of chairs and in the solid, metaphorical reality of the invisible guests.
Veteran British actors Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan wonderfully demonstrate the theatricality of the piece with a mixture of grace, passion and seemingly geriatric energy. They are enchanted and enchanting - two great performances.
Here is a quality of Ionesco acting I haven't myself seen since Alec Guinness played in "Exit the King." Beware. It's a short run - but richly worth making the effort to catch up with it.
What's so funny? Why are people at the Golden Theater laughing with such childlike happiness? The images up there onstage are of an unconditional bleakness: a gray, bombed-out-looking room inhabited by a gray, bombed-out-looking man and woman, clearly in their twilight years in an expiring universe. The conversation, which rambles into gibberish, smacks of senility and delusion, and the overall effect is of a world stripped of God, meaning and even memory. And that's entertainment?
Well, yes, and entertainment of an exceptionally high order. In fact, if you're looking for a bubbly pick-me-up of a night at the theater, you couldn't do better than spend it with Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers, playing a couple who rot before your eyes.
These splendid British actors are having the time of their lives waltzing with death and decay in the revival that opened last night of ''The Chairs,'' Eugene Ionesco's 80-minute absurdist comedy from 1952. And under the vivifying direction of Simon McBurney, with wondrous designs by the Quay Brothers, this London import finds lusciousness in aridity, delight in ontological despair.
The contradictions aren't really that glaring. Ionesco, the Romanian-born French playwright who died in 1994, made a science of pumping theatrical fizz into nihilism, translating the cockeyed worldview of slapstick into cosmic terms. This, after all, was a man who identified his creative ancestors as ''Job, Shakespeare's Richard II, King Solomon, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Cops.'' And as far back as 1958, the critic Eric Bentley identified Ionesco's gift for creating ''a state of euphoria in the audience.''
Still, this new production from the Royal Court Theater and Theatre de Complicite, the vital and imaginative troupe last seen here in 1996 with ''The Three Lives of Lucie Chabrol,'' was not an obvious candidate for the mainstream success it has already achieved in London.
The works of Ionesco, who made his biggest popular splash in the United States with the 1961 Broadway production of ''Rhinoceros'' with Zero Mostel, have been widely perceived as dated in recent years. The playwright's reputation has suffered especially from comparisons with that of his more austere contemporary, Samuel Beckett, whose works have a hermetically sealed quality that places them outside of time. Ionesco's, peppered with topical references and colloquialisms, more obviously reflect the age in which he lived.
Martin Crimp's spry new translation of ''The Chairs'' takes this generation gap into account, working in allusions to such latter-day phenomena as spin doctors and substituting ''television'' for ''radio.'' Mr. McBurney's staging, while true to the original spirit of ''tragic farce,'' demonstrates that Ionesco cannot only tickle and touch today's audiences but can also be performed with the flash and flourish to fill a Broadway house. This great-looking, vivacious ''Chairs'' easily accommodates an enhanced sense of scale and spectacle that would be inappropriate to ''Waiting for Godot.''
The title characters of ''The Chairs'' are chairs: real, mostly wooden pieces of furniture that, though unbilled, do appear memorably here, performing with wit and precision. But while this production can compete with any Broadway musical in its ingenious manipulation of moving scenery, that scenery never upstages its stars.
How could it, with Ms. McEwan and Mr. Briers in charge of things? Playing a nonagenarian couple married for (as far as they can tell) some 70 years, these performers achieve the sublimely rhythmic give-and-take of veteran vaudevillians. Imagine Burns and Allen, after a battery of electric shock treatments and with English accents, trying to justify God's ways to man. Both flamboyant and subversively sly, Ms. McEwan and Mr. Briers use shtick to remind you that any couple that has been together for a long time does indeed rely on shtick: a continuing, repetitive exchange patterned by irritability and affection, resentment and dependence.
This verbal softshoe, which sounds familiar even at its most grotesque and illogical, is enacted against a setting that appears to be teetering on the very edge of a worn-out world. The room called home by the couple, identified only as Old Woman and Old Man, has been designed by the Quay Brothers in a style that might be described as nihilistic Gothic.
It is only, as the script specifies, a big, empty room, with two tiers of doors on its walls. Yet there's a grandeur to the bareness, a feeling enhanced by Paul Anderson's crepuscular lighting and Paul Arditti's sound, which conjures an aural landscape of water lapping, hypnotically and endlessly, outside. The opening image, in which Ms. McEwan and Mr. Briers are seen peering through an illuminated window into what is presumably an infinite expanse of ocean, is a stunner. And it establishes an atmosphere that mixes anxious anticipation with a tired resignation.
Like the tramps of Beckett's ''Godot,'' the couple in ''The Chairs'' are waiting for the climactic appearance of someone to give shape and significance to their lives. The Old Man, a janitor, has a message to deliver to the world, and he has invited a host of eminent people, including a field marshal and a monarch called (in this translation) the King of Kings, to hear it.
In this play, as opposed to Beckett's, everyone shows up. Well, sort of. They're all invisible, although obviously very much present to the Old Man and Woman, who conduct animated conversations with their guests, represented by the increasing number of chairs that show up on stage. And before the play's conclusion, a flesh-and-blood person named the Orator will arrive, although as embodied with wonderful creepiness by Mick Barnfather, he seems less human and far less articulate than any of the unseen visitors.
That's all, folks, as far as plot goes. As a consideration of existential emptiness, it may not seem particularly fresh or daring anymore. But it's not as a statement on the human condition that ''The Chairs'' succeeds, but as a portrayal of it: a depiction of how people keep chattering to stave off the unthinkable silence that surrounds them. Words, spun into blissfully silly inversions of social cliches, create the world of ''The Chairs,'' even as it insists on the valuelessness of language.
Mr. Briers and Ms. McEwan give beautifully varied, musical life to this language. Carping, consoling, contradicting, flirting obscenely with their unseen visitors and fumbling through a shared, uncertain past, they are both hilarious and deeply poignant.
Looking like the human equivalents of discarded, hole-ridden shoes, they also realize a sort of yin-and-yang balance of physical slapstick, with Ms. McEwan playing furiously active helpmeet to Mr. Briers's more stationary, posturing philosopher. The spouses drive each other crazy, of course, yet as they are increasingly separated by the chairs that take over their room, your heart bleeds for them. Like everyone, each is obviously destined to die alone.
Any show that hinges on such a realization probably shouldn't be invigorating, but this one definitely is. Audiences at early productions of ''The Chairs'' are reported to have left the theater in a rage of confusion. All you're likely to see leaving the Golden Theater is a sea of smiles.
Among the many enduring mysteries posed by Eugene Ionesco's absurdist benchmark "The Chairs," a more pressing question is prompted by its new Broadway revival: Once word spreads about this utterly mesmerizing production, will people be able to get seats?
On the face of it, there's hardly a less likely candidate for a New York commercial outing than an existentialist template that would seem these days to be the province of high school drama buffs busily composing essays on the meaning of meaninglessness. But such assumptions fail to account for the exuberant theatricality of the play's current English director, Simon McBurney, repeating a staging first seen on the West End last November, and the glorious double-act of stars Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan, who walk a darkly comic tightrope befitting a play described by its author as "a tragic farce." Amid all the Anglo-Irish productions making the transatlantic crossing this season, "The Chairs" may just be the happiest surprise: What was a lively evening in London has become -- in the best Broadway tradition -- a New York event.
This transformation is achieved in a way that always honors the play, while simultaneously allowing the inimitable leads to parade a level of technique that, frankly, is rarely sustained in London, let alone New York. Listen to McEwan effect vocal variations on a litany of "yes" and "no," some of them barely above a whisper, even as she later savors the internal rhymes of a Joycean trio of words, "luscious, ushers, blushes." The result is no less incantatory than Briers' swings from childlike need to the self-aggrandizement of an acknowledged mediocrity, who, we are told repeatedly, missed out on any chance to be one of life's masters. Playing a nonagenarian couple married for 75 years, the actors are wedded in other ways, as well, in their shared command of the very specific thrills of the theater that McBurney, as director, both taps into and expands.
McBurney has made his name over the last 15 years with Britain's ever-inventive Theatre de Complicite, co-producers with the Royal Court of this play's London stand, and his achievement here is to give the actors their head while shaking up (with the help of Martin Crimp's vigorous, sometimes racy new translation) what could simply be a play about props. If his ending still seems overly keen to deconstruct the play, rather than simply revisit it, well, such is the British way, and one can only imagine the spin that the Court's just-departed artistic director, Stephen Daldry ("An Inspector Calls"), might have given the same material.
The disorienting opening places the couple in a shimmering, watery dreamscape that gives way to the Quay Brothers' high-walled, drably colored set, a fortress of doors and bells that might suggest the world of Feydeau if it weren't also so fearsome. Out step Briers' Old Man and McEwan's Old Woman, an exhausted pair of vaudevillians determined to have one last revel before they forsake the life that, in many ways, has forsaken them. The occasion? The eagerly awaited arrival of the Orator (a black-clad Mick Barnfather, looking like a cross between a rock star and a very hip undertaker) bearing a crucial message for mankind that -- when finally heard -- is both garbled and bleak. Ionesco's contemporary, Beckett, would approve, even if his "Waiting for Godot" offers its own implicit emendation to "The Chairs" by not allowing that play's emissary of meaning even to show up.
Beckett, of course, remains the better-known exemplar of the comedy of nihilism, but "The Chairs," in its own way, distills a literary movement's despairing yet jaunty gavotte in the face of death. "I feel the pain where others don't," says the Old Man, Briers' sad-eyed face alive to every indignity of his life as a janitor. And yet, if his lot has been to scrub and not to rule (as the Old Man sees it, he's the "master of the mop," not the more exalted "king of kings"), he's nonetheless the most game of hosts, preparing with his beloved "petty-pie" -- the characters' nicknames for one another are priceless -- for a stage full of (invisible) guests whom both performers bring abundantly alive.
The sudden surge of visitors (Fabled Beauty and Offsetlithographer are two of them) forms the potential showpiece of any production of this play, and McBurney and Co. do not disappoint. While Paul Arditti's sound design goes into overdrive, the stage is suddenly, and hilariously, awash in chairs (62 in total), the scene kept just this side of a calculated "number" by one's suspense at whether Briers and, especially, a madcap, whirling McEwan will be physically able to pull it off. When it comes to split-second timing, Broadway hasn't hosted a play this demanding since "Noises Off."
That the performers keep pace and then some is merely one achievement of a double-act far more finely tuned and moving than it was in London, where McEwan's occasionally exaggerated turn wasn't always attuned to Briers' stooped humanity. As on the West End, Briers forsakes his sitcom-honed charm to embody eloquently the panic coursing through a play which can be seen to anticipate such American theater mainstays as Edward Albee -- talk of an errant, even absent, child most notably. McEwan, returning to Broadway for the first time in over 30 years, has humanized her stylistic flourishes into a performance at once grand and intimate, that swoop of a voice equal parts Betty Boop, Maggie Smith and even Margaret Rutherford. Splotchy-eyed and shabbily dressed, she's the courtliest of subjects in thrall to her own sense of (however misplaced) occasion, hair firing off in one direction even as an astonishingly limber pair of legs set off in another.
Indeed, there's a delicious irony to the majesty of such performances pressed into the service of two of life's more colorful discards, an abject pair saved from oblivion by a circus master's love of ceremony. "I am a kind of king," says the Old Man yearningly, and in acting terms, this play's stars royally are, which is why, in a play about unseen visitors, these latecomers to Broadway deserve a rich and visible welcome.