When Ionesco debuted The Bald Soprano in 1950, he helped usher in the theater of the absurd. The avant-garde style he called the "anti-play," later embraced by Beckett and Albee, is a smart choice to kick off the Pearl Theatre's new season at City Center. Hal Brooks directs with vigor, aided by a cast that smoothly mines Ionesco's modern classic for its humor and sly satire.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Rachel Botchan and Bradford Cover) live in a London suburb and are comfortably engaged in a nonsensical after-dinner discussion. The phrases, inane small talk, are strung together in random fashion. They are a typical bourgeois couple; she darns socks, he smokes a pipe and reads the newspaper. The set perfectly captures the placid conformity of a post-war, middle-class home.
They embark on several wacky conversations -- a doctor and his patient, an expose of Bobby Watson -- en route to a marital spat. Soon, the maid (Robin Leslie Brown) announces the Martins (Jolly Abraham and Brad Heberlee), their dinner guests, have arrived. The Martins, who pretend not to know each other," engage in their own discoveries. "Curious and bizarre!" the wife exclaims, while her husband registers his own astonishment with "what a coincidence!"
The marital exchanges are funny because they are absurd; in their absurdity, they transcend language. A celebration of sound and intonation, The Bald Soprano is both social commentary and modern parody. It was written by the Romanian-French playwright, in part, as a response to his learning English. The couples are interchangeable; their middle-class niceties scream banality. There is no narrative; as Ionesco makes clear, they have nothing to say.
Ionesco utilized later works, such as Rhinoceros and Exit the King, to address issues of freedom, politics and morality in the aftermath of Nazi and fascist brutality. He employed a nonlinear, surreal theatrical world to articulate ideas about the nature of existence, the tragic limitations of language and the cruelty of man.
The Pearl has smartly staged The Bald Soprano with a cast that hits every nonsensical chord. The company is sharp, reveling in Ionesco's comic caricatures and verbal babbles. Well-played absurdity is its own reward.