Victoria's Public

It's hard to tell what Smith means us to draw from this tale, beyond the obvious--and rather Victorian--morals: Sex isn't what makes marriages last; taste pleasures now or miss them ever after; etc. Since, especially with the older couple, we only see those brittle expressions of distance, the result is that marriage seems to have no validity at all. Which leaves a play all about the intricacies of marriage with a centerless feeling.

Or would, except that The Uneasy Chair is a comedy, and its two principal roles are played by Dana Ivey and Roger Rees. Do you think comedy of purest gold can't be spun from Smith's mildly amusing wisps of straw? Say ''Rumpelstiltskin'' three times fast, and then picture Dana Ivey, in full Victorian garb, splayed across a couch in an attitude of sexual willingness. If you aren't laughing yet, or don't know who Dana Ivey is, you probably don't deserve to live in New York; either turn your apartment over to some young artist at a reasonable rent, or go see The Uneasy Chair. You can surely get tickets; the snobs who think theater only means playwriting must have given theirs back by now. But the theater is made up of actors; if they all had the wit and precision of Dana Ivey, we might call this a civilized country.

Dana Ivey (left) and Roger Rees in The Uneasy Chair: bickering their way into senility
Joan Marcus
Dana Ivey (left) and Roger Rees in The Uneasy Chair: bickering their way into senility

Details

The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Charles Ludlam
Westside Theatre
407 West 43rd Street
239-6200

The Uneasy Chair
By Evan Smith
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
279-4200

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I haven't said anything about Roger Rees. But the husband always gets the worst of it in these cases, and Rees knows that: His great moment comes when, having married, he finds himself incapable of pronouncing his own name if preceded by ''Mrs.'' The string of nonsense syllables that he stammers instead is gold out of straw again. And he manages, while stammering them, to make his eyes roll in two directions at once. Ivey is most of the show, but you had better keep a close watch on Rees too. The supporting cast is negligible, but not painful, and the director, Richard Cottrell, has filled in the script's blank spots judiciously, especially in his choice of music: The fadeout is Joan Morris warbling ''Love's Old Sweet Song,'' one of the world's more perfect recordings.

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