Eugene Ionesco, modern drama’s joker in the pack, strove throughout his career to re-create the same openmouthed fascination he experienced as a child watching Punch and Judy shows. Though his presence in the New York theater scene has ebbed recently, you can never count the old jester out. Two years ago Theatre de Complicité brought The Chairs to Broadway and now the Sanctuary Theater Workshop inaugurates the newly refurbished Cha on 42nd Street with The Picture, a charmingly bizarre (and seldom seen) Ionesco curio. Admittedly a minor work in the author’s canon, The Picture failed miserably when first performed in 1955. Ionesco blamed the problem on the premiere’s overly realistic style. Nearly half a century later, director Ian Belton attempts to redress that wrong with a wacky, comic-book approach.
A stockbroker (Tony Torn)—described by Ionesco as simply The Large Gentleman—sits behind a giant desk in a lime-and-black-striped suit. A self-professed connoisseur, he interviews a scruffy painter (Tom Pearl) who nervously clutches a rolled-up canvas. The Large Gentleman considers purchasing the item, but wants to talk price first, aesthetics later. As he bargains the artist down from 400,000 francs to a measly 400, the stockbroker complains about the lack of beauty in his life. Not only are his walls bare, but his sole companion is his hunchbacked, one-armed crone of a sister (Laura Kachergus), who moaningly obeys his every command.
Can a portrait substitute for an alluring woman? Well, it can certainly provoke a sexual paroxysm, as witnessed by the way TLG ogles his new picture (obtained, needless to say, without a single centime). His lascivious groping of the painted figure, however, incites a surprising role reversal: His sister now browbeats him for his embarrassing proclivities. This isn’t the only metamorphosis. Fed up with the nagging, TLG eventually shoots his sister, mysteriously transforming her into a sexy sculpture. After performing the same service for the painter and a haggish neighbor, he begs the audience to pull the trigger on him.
Set in a spare, cartoonish room illuminated with lime-colored lights, Ionesco’s high jinks (which don’t resonate as deeply as his best) are played extremely broadly. With his sweaty, outsize facade and menacing, high-pitched voice, Torn, an impressive oddball talent, resembles a used-car salesman with a homicidal streak. Kachergus’s pea-green wig, black goggles, and pretzel posture may tip the production into pure silliness, but she certainly embodies that circus quality Ionesco unswervingly admired.
High, the latest offering by the Asian American performance group Slant, imagines subterranean life as it is currently led in the Giuliani-era subway system. Temporarily exchanging their rock-‘n’-roll equipment for more portable instruments, the trio (Richard Ebihara, Wayland Quintero, and Perry Young) find excuses to jam together on pipe whistles, Japanese clappers, and empty liquor bottles.
The piece unfolds as a surreal succession of loosely choreographed skits. Dressed in skimpy Hefty Bag shorts, Mole Man trawls the IRT for empty bottles, which he both “plays” and casts as characters in an opera based on their brand names. His nemesis, a bare-chested, robotic policeman wearing football shoulder pads and leather suspenders, chases him for petty offenses related to his anti-recycling concertos. Running interference is a shakuhachi musician-panhandler who moonlights as a “one-dolla, one-dolla” peddler of battery-operated gizmos.
Slant’s unflagging ingenuity drives the show, even after it becomes apparent that nothing too revelatory will happen. (Giuliani is tweaked, but there’s no political roughhousing.) It’s like an episode of Road Runner guest-starring the pan-Asian version of the Monkees. Slant’s other productions emphasized racial alienation. High just wants to have fun—a little rhythm and a whole lot of madcap delight.
Another enjoyably inventive confection, VELO/CITY by the Canadian company Parallel Exit, would make a perfect curtain-raiser for Stomp. Though less rousing a dance-theater experience, VELO/CITY blends vaudeville slapstick with wily acrobatics in a sketch of office workers in jazz-age New York. The action begins with the sun rising along a black-and-white drawing of the skyline. Three identically dressed accountants (in black suits, black glasses, and emerald green ties) do everything together—commute, read the paper, compute, take breaks, talk on the phone, have lunch, plug more numbers, go for drinks, try to pick up women (in this case three stuffed sacks), and drunkenly shuffle home at the end of the day.
What starts off as an exercise in kinetic mime flowers into a quotidian comic ballet. Directed with panache by Mark Lonergan, the cast (Scott Ardizzone, John Socas, and Brian Torrell) is adept at both Chaplinesque pratfalls and plain old gymnastics. Previously produced in New York on a double bill, VELO/CITY is too brief a piece to stand on its own. Here’s a happy instance where more would very likely amount to more.