Sticks and stones may break our bones, but Eugène Ionesco was the writer who crystallized for all time the lethal power of words. Before him, characters in fiction and drama could only be killed by the revelatory substance that language carried, but in the two short, mordant divertissements that made Ionesco famous half a century ago, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, it’s the words themselves that do the dirty work. “Philology leads to disaster,” as the astringent housemaid of The Lesson sagely warns her professorial employer. In Ionesco’s plays, a word can make time run backwards, render marriage provisional, turn one deceased person into an entire burgeoning family (all named Bobby Watson), and finally—if the word happens to be “dagger”— become a murder weapon.
Carl Forsman’s production for the Atlantic Theater Company isn’t the optimal setting of these two weirdly faceted gems, but enough of their genuine sparkle shows through to make it worth a visit for anyone who’s never been dazzled by them before. Tina Howe’s new translation wavers between ingenious inventions and surprising misfires in coping with Ionesco’s linguistic trickery. The skilled cast of The Bald Soprano has been pushed into overstatement; someone was apparently afraid the audience wouldn’t get the joke. Only Jan Maxwell’s Mrs. Smith manages to fuse humor and humanity. Forsman’s on more secure ground with The Lesson, though he oddly steers clear of its sexual subtext. Howe’s language flows better here, and Steven Skybell, as the lunatic professor, zings out his pedantic rants as if he were mainlining the words. Which is right, since Ionesco’s a language high unlike any other.