Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is a difficult masterpiece. Subtitled Anti-play, it is, along with Waiting for Godot, a quintessential work of Theatre of the Absurd. The action is set in a living room on an “English evening” in which the Smiths are having the Martins over for dinner—the drama is essentially plotless, and consists mostly of the couples’ struggle to have any kind of meaningful conversation; their chatter is interrupted once—by a fire chief aimlessly searching for a fire to extinguish.
Now, when I say the Smiths and the Martins struggle to have a meaningful conversation, I mean this in the most literal way. It is said that Ionesco came up with the premise of The Bald Soprano while learning to speak English, and it is easy to see the connection. As the play opens, Mr. and Mrs. Smith discuss the dinner they just ate, the funeral of old Bobby Watson, and the difference between men and women. Bobby Watson seems to have had many relatives, all of whom have the same name: “Bobby Watson’s aunt, old Bobby Watson, might very well, in her turn, pay for the education of Bobby Watson, Bobby Watson’s daughter. That way Bobby, Bobby Watson’s mother, could remarry.” When Mrs. Smith accuses men of being all alike—“You sit there all day long, a cigarette in your mouth, or you powder your nose and rouge your lips, fifty times a day, or else you drink like a fish”—Mr. Smith responds by asking her what she would do if men instead acted like women, “Smoking all day long, powdering, rouging their lips, drinking whisky.” Through this distortion and vacuous repetition, Ionesco immerses the audience in the sonorously offensive experience of an outsider looking at English and coming to a conclusion about all languages’ inability to communicate meaning.
Though it is only one act, running for about seventy-five minutes at The Pearl Theatre’s new revival, The Bald Soprano can easily be mishandled, for while the dialogue is hilarious, it is also redundant, tedious and aggressive; we get the sense that Ionesco wants to barrage his audience with words until they no longer mean anything—the play concludes, for example, with a seemingly never-ending parade of platitudes only loosely based on real figures of speech. The somewhat recognizable “I prefer a bird in the bush to a sparrow in the barrow” becomes “Don’t be turkeys; rather kiss the conspirator” and finally devolves into Mr. Martin crying out, “Such cascades of cacas!” over and over again. Fortunately, the Pearl has assembled a truly fine cast: Bradford Cover (Mr. Smith), whose appearance is reminiscent of Sigmund Freud, spits all over the stage as he works himself into a frenzy, Brad Heberlee (Mr. Martin) charms us with his earnestness, and Dan Daily (The Fire Chief) almost steals the show in his brief, droll appearance.
Though Ionesco tosses meaningful language out the window, it is important that actors apply the same immediacy and gravity to their nugatory lines as in an ordinary British drama—and not the farcical Absurdist French version of one. (Interestingly, language does hold power over the characters if not the author or the audience; when one announces, “We all have colds,” it immediately becomes true.) This is handled with true excellence. It is pure delight to watch Mr. Martin and his wife (Jolly Abraham) spend a good deal of time trying to figure out when they’ve met each together, continually surprised—“How curious it is, good Lord, how bizarre!”—at the number of coincidences which lead them to conclude they must be married; the audience was in stitches when Mr. Heberlee delivered the line, “Then, madam, we live in the same room and we sleep in the same bed, dear lady. It is perhaps there that we have met!” And if we are a bit weary by the time The Bald Soprano ends, it is only because director Hal Brooks has served his playwright well.
The Pearl Theatre has quite a season on its plate: following The Bald Soprano, they will be staging productions of Richard II, Shaw’s The Philanderer, and O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. An eclectic collection, no doubt, but if they bring the same level of intelligence, of passion, and of pure talent to these plays as they have to Ionesco’s, it should be an inspiring year.