Saved, Edward Bond’s best-known play, abounds in anomie, brutality, and infanticide, but ends quietly, as a young man mends a chair, a conclusion Bond has described as “almost irresponsibly optimistic.” One can hardly make that claim of Chair, which concludes in a sudden and senseless death, one of several the play presents. Four of its five characters perish, and even the titular furnishing is “deemed unsalvageable.” With Chair, produced by Theatre for a New Audience, director Robert Woodruff continues his collaboration with Bond, having previously directed the 2005 American debut of Olly’s Prison and the 2001 revival of Saved.
Bond locates Chair in the London of 2077, where a totalitarian government maintains a “present permanent state of alert,” and any show of compassion warrants investigation. Like two other recent theatrical dystopias, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, Chair examines the tension between individual rebellion and social stricture. Stricture wins. When Alice (Stephanie Roth Haberle) brings a chair to a soldier (Alfredo Narciso) waiting at a bus stop, murders and suicide ensue.
Chair has the air of a parable, rather like the stories Alice’s foster son, Billy (Will Rogers, with tremulous voice and wobbly legs), invents to console himself. In the course of the play, Billy illustrates the tale of Mr. Dot who is “going to the furthest place in the whole world.” (Of course, this being a Bond play, Mr. Dot finishes lost and dying in the middle of the ocean.) But Bond apparently means the play less as a fable and more as a call to arms. He told The Guardian some years ago, “Humanity’s become a product, and when humanity is a product, you get Auschwitz and you get Chair. . . . The world of Chair is absolutely possible if we don’t learn to describe what’s happening to us.”
The formulaic nature of the script, Woodruff’s rather rigid production, and David Zinn’s simple, bare set (beautifully lit by Mark Barton) don’t, however, foment revolution. Nor do the actors’ fastidious but rather mannered performances. This play anesthetizes as much as it terrifies. Yet Bond does offer some small consolation: If the future London really is so dreadful, flights to Heathrow might be much less expensive.