The Bald Soprano and The Lesson
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Santa Monica Playhouse
Through August 26
In troubled times like these, there should be something rewarding in unwinding with absurdism. After all, when the world doesn’t make sense, a dose of topsy-turvy comedy should be just what the doctor ordered. French playwright Eugene Ionesco was one of the masters of absurdist comedy, and wrote classics like Rhinoceros (which is coincidentally currently playing at the Pacific Resident Theatre), and one-acts The Bald Soprano (aka La Cantatrice Chauve in French) and The Lesson (aka La Leçon). The Santa Monica Playhouse is currently showing the latter two, but unfortunately the production leaves much to be desired.
The Bald Soprano is a great piece of comedic writing, following the not-so-quotidian life of Brits Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie), and their unexpected houseguests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Brad Griffith and Nicola Bertram). They’re interrupted often by the chiming clock, the doorbell, the maid (Elodie Cammarata), and a bored fire chief (Tavis L. Baker). The dialogue doesn’t make much sense, but it’s not supposed to — Ionesco was parroting the oddities of polite, empty conversation, and much of the humor is to be derived from the play’s series of non-sequiturs. Unfortunately, under the direction of DeCarlo (pulling double duty) and Serena Dolinsky, both the pace and energy are much lower than they need to be to sustain this kind of farce. The one-act isn’t aided by performance either, with a few ensemble members tripping over their lines and seeming to think too hard about motivation, a futile effort in absurdist comedy. Bertram’s Mrs. Martin is the most charming performer of the bunch, pursing her lips and putting on an upper-class accent that’s reminiscent of Claire Foy’s turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
More technically adept in execution is the evening’s second show, The Lesson, which is about a gifted, yet obtuse young pupil (co-director Dolinsky) and her seemingly wise, harried older professor (DeCarlo). The Pupil is adept at addition and multiplication, but struggles with subtraction and the vagaries of the near-identical “Neo-Spanish” languages. As her lesson with the vaguely lecherous Professor continues, she develops a toothache, much to the chagrin of her teacher, who hounds her relentlessly. Eventually, fed up with her perceived obstinacy, the Professor kills the Pupil. When the maid (Rudie) comes to help the Professor dispose of (yet another) body, she hands him a Nazi armband so as not to arouse suspicion.
While it surely wasn’t the Santa Monica Playhouse’s intention to produce this show at a moment in America when Nazi sentiments are surprisingly strong, the presence of Nazi imagery in a comedic context puts a heavy damper on the whole evening. Ionesco, who grew up in Paris and Romania during World War II, was both staunchly anti-Nazi and anti-socialist, so he surely didn’t write that flippantly — but any sort of Nazi imagery is a hard pill to swallow in an America where Nazis are currently rioting and killing other Americans. Rather than serving as a poignant reminder of the dangers of radical ideologies, the moment — one of the last moments of the night — feels clunky and jarring.
Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m. (alternating English and French performances); through August 26. SantaMonicaPlayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.