THE APOLLO OF BELLAC
and THE BALD SOPRANO
The Bald Soprano turned 40 last year, but you wouldn't know it by the laughs it got the other night in Pilsen. This middle-aged absurdist comedy still works, proving what we knew already, that the world is still crazy after all these years.
Essentially plotless, this famous one-act "antiplay" parodies the pointless lives of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, two respectable middle-class London suburbanites with a definite fondness for wayward logic: "A conscientious doctor must die with his patient." On the night of the play, the Smiths entertain their friends, the Martins (who have either dropped in unannounced or are four hours late to dinner). The Martins have a few quirks of their own, the most unusual being their habit of behaving as if they hardly know each other.
"Excuse me, Madam," Mr. Martin asks his wife meekly, as soon as they're comfortably seated in the Smiths' living room, "but it seems to me . . . that I've met you somewhere before." "I, too, sir," Mrs. Martin replies shyly. "It seems to me that I've met you somewhere before." They compare notes and to their mutual astonishment discover that not only are they both from Manchester originally, and both live in the same apartment building in London, but they also happen to sleep in the same room in the same bed. "It is perhaps there that we have met!" Mr. Martin boldly declares. To which Mrs. Martin can only reply, "It is indeed possible. . . . But I do not recall it, dear sir!"
This is theater of the absurd at its best, written by the great Franco-Romanian father of the form: Eugene Ionesco. Inspired by the insipid dialogue in a foreign language textbook, Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano as a "tragedy" about the limitations of language, but his tragedy proved over the years quite a popular comedy. Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee, Woody Allen, even those crazies in Monty Python all show Ionesco's influence; but rarely do any of them equal the mad absurd comedy of The Bald Soprano. Who else but Ionesco would dare to end his play with five minutes or so of such non sequiturs as "In real life, one must look out the window," "Name the seven days of the week!" and "My uncle lives in the country, but that's none of the midwife's business," and then conclude the whole thing with a crescendo of meaningless sentences and nonsensical syllables. And who else but Ionesco could turn this potentially awful ending into hilarious comedy.
Despite being one of the most popular modern plays among college English professors, second only to Waiting for Godot, The Bald Soprano is rarely performed--mostly because it was done to death on college campuses and in high school auditoriums in the late 60s and early 70s. Happily, those days are long gone, and the time was ripe for David Perkovich's revival at Interplay.
Perkovich has assembled a talented cast of comic actors, quite capable of turning Ionesco's strange play into pure joy. Karen Yates is quite wonderful as the kooky Mrs. Smith, a woman willing to argue that a ringing doorbell always means that someone is not at the door. And Brian-Mark Conover holds his own as Mr. Smith, a man with an empty platitude for every occasion. But the actor who really shines is Francesca Rollins as the manic-depressive Mary, the Maid. Rollins really knows how to raise the energy of a scene. If only the same were true of Yakov Neiditch and Carrie Betlyn, whose wooden acting as Mr. and Mrs. Martin just about ruined the wonderfully funny scene in which they discover that they are actually husband and wife.
Thankfully, for the most part the show moves at quite a nice pace. If anything, it ended much too soon. If there had been a second performance of The Bald Soprano that evening, I would have stayed for it--Martins and all.
First on the bill at Interplay is Jean Giraudoux' The Apollo of Bellac, a charming, ever-so-mildly funny one-act that has aged considerably less gracefully than The Bald Soprano. First performed in 1942, the play concerns a woman named Agnes desperate to find work at the fictional International Bureau of Inventions. She has no luck at all, until she meets an odd, mysterious stranger who tells her the secret to getting ahead in a man's world: flattery. More precisely, he admonishes her to tell all men how handsome they are, and doors will open wide.
With this information in hand, Agnes proceeds to flatter her way past an officious minor clerk and begin her climb up the corporate ladder, always using the same magic phrase: "How handsome you are!" She ends up, first with the president, who promises to divorce his wife for her (but changes his mind), and then, finally, in the arms of the chairman of the board--a suitably handsome and unattached bureaucrat who is quite interested in (ta-daa!) marriage. The story ends happily.
A more reactionary view of women you are not likely to find anywhere in Chicago theater. Still, there is much that is worthwhile in this corporate fable. The moral of the story--that it's amazing how far you can go if you are just nice to people--is actually quite refreshing. And the play has a certain refined and witty charm--a Jean Giraudoux trademark--that is all but extinguished by Interplay's insensitive cast.
Eileen Dulen is likable enough as Agnes, but she plays her role without much flair or comic sense; at times she honestly seems unaware that some of her lines actually might be funny. And Paul Mullins, as the Apollo, is miscast. Mullins seems always to be barely repressing bitter sarcasm; he's hardly the kind of guy you'd expect to give sensitive advice to someone like Agnes. These two are not alone in being out of place in this light comedy. Of the show's cast of 13, only a couple of walk-ons and Peter Reineman (as the gargoyle-ish Vice President) seem capable of producing humor from Giraudoux' often witty lines.
Perhaps Giraudoux' quiet wit is too gentle for a generation raised on absurdity. Perhaps the play can never quite overcome its patronizing message to women. Yet even this production gives off hints of the wit and charm and dignified humanism for which Jean Giraudoux is famous. Maybe, one day, with the right cast, and the right direction, The Apollo of Bellac will seem almost as funny as The Bald Soprano.