When I was an undergraduate a bus or train ride from Manhattan, theatre seemed to be in a renaissance. Off-Broadway, one could find productions of the leading European playwrights, the Paris-based Irishman Samuel Beckett, the Paris-based Romanian Ionesco and the English Harold Pinter, while on Broadway David Merrick imported the best of contemporary British drama. Zero Mostel starred on Broadway in Ionesco's RHINOCEROS. Other than the young Edward Albee, American playwrights seemed behind the curve. Now there's lots of fine new American drama and less from Europe.
I thought about Beckett and Ionesco last week as I watched -- twice -- Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES, a play very much infused with the sense of language and the world view of Ionesco. In Eno's brilliant play, the most poetic I have encountered in a long time, characters are extremely self-conscious about language, but conversations still have little meaning and connections are rarely, if ever, made between people, even husbands and wives. There's a hunger for connection but the connection is tenuous at best. The words one remembers from the play are "terror," "abandonment' and "loneliness." Yet Eno's play is very funny. He has the mordant sense of humor of Beckett and Ionesco. Like Ionesco, he plays with aspects of theatrical realism.
At their beautiful new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre, around the corner from BAM in Brooklyn, Theatre for a New Audience is offering a revival of Ionesco's 1958 play THE KILLER as a vehicle for the always fascinating Michael Shannon. THE KILLER is longer than most Ionesco plays (the performance lasts three hours) and takes a large cast. Like much of his work, it could be categorized as a philosophical comedy. The basic world view is bleak but, like Beckett, Ionesco encourages his audience to laugh as we look at the abyss.
Berenger (Shannon), Ionesco's usual Everyman, has been suffering from profound melancholy. He no longer can feel the occasional moment of transcendent joy and harmony with the universe that used to keep him going. When we first meet him, he is being given a tour of a new ideal urban community by the architect (Robert Stanton), who seems to hold a number of bureaucratic functions. At first Berenger is overwhelmed by the seeming perfection of this new planned community. Not only are the gardens and buildings beautiful, but the climate seems always ideal. Nothing is perfect, however. The residents of this ideal community are being killed off by a serial killer and their corpses are ending up in the lagoon. When a young woman on whom Berenger developed an instant crush is killed, Berenger sets out to find the killer. As the play moves on, we see a far-from-ideal world of violence, disease and encroaching fascism. A politician, Ma Piper (the fabulous Kristine Niesen in one of her two roles in the production) utters a doublespeak like something out of George Orwell. Rebels and police are brutal. When Berenger finally confronts the killer, he runs through every possible philosophical or logical argument to try to convince the man to stop killing. The killer responds to every proposition with laughter. By the end, Berenger has run out of words and is left exhausted physically, intellectually and spiritually.
On the large thrust stage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre director Darko Tresnjak has mounted a simple but highly effective production that is, as it must be, both funny and sinister. The cast couldn't be better. Berenger is a gigantic role that seems to have more lines than Hamlet and King Lear combined. Shannon, who has played the role before, gives a virtuous performance. He is constantly surprising vocally and physically. There's never a dull moment. Krstine Nielsen is hilarious as his concierge and scary as the fascist Ma Piper. In the first act, an hour long scene between Berenger and The Architect, Robert Stanton is an excellent foil for Berenger. As Berenger's very sick and oddly creepy friend Edward, Paul Sparks matches Shannon's energy and inventiveness. There's a large supporting cast to provide the necessary sinister mood. One also has to praise the soundscape Jane Shaw has created.
It was daring for Theatre for a New Audience to mount this fine, demanding play. They have given it a superb production that should be seen by anyone interested in the best of twentieth century drama.
THE KILLER by Eugene Ionesco. Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre. June 15, 2014.