Eugene Ionesco's The Chairsmight exemplify the worst of experimental theater. It's the type of play academic theater people praise for its dense intellectual ballast, its daring and artful examination of the alienation of the individual. It's a "poetic image brought to life," as British critic Martin Esslin put it: complex, ambiguous, multidimensional. It's just so goddamn European.
As the play begins, a 95-year-old man and a 94-year-old woman who live on an island surrounded by a stagnant sea are preparing for the arrival of a crowd. The crowd has been invited to hear the old man explain what he's learned about life. Doorbells ring, doors are opened, and the old couple gush with polite conversation as they welcome their guests—but the guests cannot be seen or heard. The old couple is undeterred, bringing out chair after chair and seating their phantom guests. Finally, the emperor—also unseen—arrives and is seated, leading the way for the Orator, who will deliver the old man's message.
The orator is the only other real person onstage; his arrival precipitates the departures of the old man and his wife when, satisfied that his message will be heard, they jump out a window into the sea. The orator begins to speak to the room—or should we call it a sea?—of empty chairs but manages only strained grunts. He turns to a blackboard, where he writes a few unintelligible phrases, makes more unintelligible sounds, and then he, too, splits. As the lights dim on the room of empty chairs, the sounds of the invisible crowd can slowly be heard: laughter, coughs and murmurs.
There are two dangers in such surreal theater: to play for understanding (so that your audience walks out feeling comfortable, thinking they've got it) and to play for laughs (so that your audience walks out feeling comfortable, laughing). This Sledgehammer Theatre production, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, comes pretty close to getting it right. It isn't a sterile, master's-thesis production of an acknowledged masterpiece of postwar European theater. Although the set design follows Ionesco's rigorously detailed scheme—even down to the 35 empty chairs that fill the room—the characterizations by Dahoud Heidami and Dana Hooley as the Old Man and Old Woman feel positively buoyant. They're old people still filled with spark and life.
But there might be too much emphasis on the human dimension of a play that, on one level, seems more concerned with broader goals—such as giving a middle finger to the theatergoers who attend theater in large part because they believe theater is a window on their reality. In Ionesco's world, reality is to be distrusted, even scorned. That's one reason he labeled this play a tragic farce: as funny and bizarre as the onstage antics might be, there's also obvious sadness in the frantic attempts by the Old Man to connect with this unseen crowd while his wife pathetically yearns to connect with him.
In this production, there's plenty of farce but not enough tragedy. These characters need to investigate the depths of their sorrows, but we get very little of that. Heidami in particular just seems too young for this role. He tries so hard to seem old—palsied, shaking hands and such—that his character's intellectual infirmities (his anxiety at living a meaningless life) are neglected.
So while Chairs is a frequently funny 80 minutes, it's not fully formed. All in all, it's the type of production that will reassure Ionesco's fans that their man was brilliant and important; the rest of the theatergoing public is likely to leave feeling comfortable.
The Chairs at Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through July 1. $15-$20; student discounts available.