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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Ionesco (1909-1994) is well known as the pioneer of the Theater of the Absurd which he preferred to call Theater of Derision. While frequently compared to Beckett, his plays have never achieved Beckett's ever growing popularity (especially his Waiting For Godot), though his first play, The Bald Soprano did become the Paris equivalent of The Mousetrap .
Of the only two full length Ionesco plays to make it to Broadway, The Chairs and Exit the King, the latter is one of four plays revolving around a character named Berenger. Rhinoceros, the most popular of the Berenger plays has popped up now and then on Off-Broadway and London stages. Now adventurous theater goers have a chance to see a Berenger rarity, The Killer, not seen in New York since a 1960 off-Broadway run, at the Theater for a New Audience's handsome new home in Brooklyn.
Michael Feingold's wonderfully accessible, rich with contemporary and humorous references translation would be even more enjoyable with some judicious streamlining. However, this revival has enough pluses to offset the overly long initial and final scenes. Though director Darko Tresnjak also chose to let this production meander along for a full three hours, his staging is atmospheric and inventive enough to make the time invested worthwhile. Tresnjak is currently in the news for his award-winning helmsmanship of The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder but I've admired his work since 2000 when, as he does now for The Killer, he managed to catch everything that was fine about Thornton Wilder's problem play The Skin of Our Teeth.
The biggest plus making the three hour time investment pay off comes from the cast. It's headed by Michael Shannon. Contrary to what you might expect from the actor who starred as the title character in Tracy Letts's Killer Joe, Shannon is not the killer but Berenger. That's the depressed Everyman who stumbles into a utopian city that turns out to have its dark side, notably a man killing off this paradise's citizens at an alarming rate.
Shannon brings enormous physical and emotional range to the depressed, temporarily enchanted, and soon-to-be back to despair Berenger, who's determined to catch the killer. He has probably fine tuned and intensified this difficult role since performing it in his own Chicago Red Orchid Theatre. When we first meet him he's being given a tour of the "radiant city" by its architect. The stage is bare (though that bare floor intriguingly revolves throughout, an apt metaphor for Berenger's going in circles mindset), but we are given a word picture of this golden medina of perfect weather. . .perfect everything.
While Shannon is clearly the key player, the production is blessed with an outstanding support cast. Robert Stanton's quietly enthusiastic but distracted Architect is a perfect coutnerpoint for Shannon's intense Berenger. The distraction of that constantly ringing old-fashioned phone in his pocket is is a visually hilarious link to our cell phone harnessed modern lives.
Excellent as the interaction between Shannon and Stanton is, it makes for a long first act. But things pick up when the left to the imagination radiant cityscape gives way to a finely tenement apartment (one of many coups by scenic and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb). That also brings Kristine Nielsen, another outstanding performer, to the stage as the concierge. She's also hilarious in the third act as a politician campaigning with a promise to bring free soup and new delusions to the deluded citizens. A few great bits of funny business are also provided by two old gents who've seen more glorious days (Noble Shropshire and Gregor Paslawsky) walking several times across the stage on canes.
The funniest and most memorable scene and support performance comes from Paul Sparks as Berenger's weird and sickly friend Edward. A scene in which Edward's bulging briefcase turns into a wild and woolly slapstick comedy act that's as creepy as it is funny since the briefcase's contents make everyone except Berenger wonder if Edward is indeed the killer.
The third act's somewhat too relevant turn into a dystopian vision sees the populace loaded into army trucks (another scenic coup for Larlarb, as are the costumes with their grisaille palette). A round of applause too to sound designer and composer Jane Shaw, and lighting designer Matthew Richards.
Shannon's final one-on-one with the killer is a stunning sum-up of a man in a hopeless debate with himself. Shannon brilliantly portrays this man overwhelmed by the futility of his plea. If only the translator or director (or possibly Shannon himself) had allowed that potent plea to lose a few minutes worth of words.