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The Wrong Engagement

Evan Smith's farce about an accidental marriage tints British comedy with existential absurdity.

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The Uneasy Chair

Writers' Theatre

It's like they're consigning them to hell. --Audience member, speaking a little too loudly to her companion during a silence at the end of the October 6 performance of The Uneasy Chair

There are two trash cans placed side by side onstage in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, and two people stuck inside them: Nagg and Nell, an old married couple. Well beyond their last legs, they spend a good deal of time peeking over their respective rims at each other, alternately cooing and bickering.

Evan Smith's The Uneasy Chair could be Nagg and Nell's backstory--the tale of how they ended up in those trash cans. Albeit in a loose sort of way. Written in the late 1990s, Smith's comedy was almost certainly never meant to be anything more than a frothy exercise in creative anachronism, demonstrating his command of high Victorian setting and style. But as that outspoken audience member recognized and explained to the rest of us on October 6, there's a touch of hellishness to The Uneasy Chair that Beckett might have appreciated. And Beckett isn't the only absurdist that Smith's script brings to mind. The early going feels like Oscar Wilde processed through Eugene Ionesco--specifically, Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, in which people are always getting their etiquette right and reality wrong.

Captain Josiah Wickett, a confirmed old bachelor in the classic British mode, responds to a notice placed by Miss Amelia Pickles, a confirmed old spinster in the classic British mode, advertising a room to let in her London mansion-turned-boardinghouse. Both are canny, practical, and tight in the classic British mode, so they immediately attempt to outmaneuver each other on negotiations over every possible matter--all the while taking the audience into their confidence through asides. That these maneuvers have to be carried out within the rules of engagement set by Victorian circumspection makes them especially delicate, convoluted, and--above all--subject to misinterpretation.

But that's not a problem at first. Like Patton and Rommel, Wickett and Pickles get along swimmingly precisely because they admire each other's strategic prowess. He's the perfect lodger, and she's the perfect landlady as long as they define their roles in, yes, the classic British mode.

They're cruising for a bruising. Wickett has a dandyish nephew, John, and Pickles a worldly niece, Alexandrina; both are young, attractive, eligible, and as socially volatile as their elders are staid. The old folks' attempt to get John and Alexandrina married throws the Wickett-Pickles equilibrium so completely out of whack that their well-worn gambits not only fail to work but blow up in their faces. Utterly outwitting themselves, Wickett and Pickles end up married to each other--a state from which a judge refuses to extricate them.

Naturally, they consider this a disaster. But Smith treats it charmingly, as a fortunate misfortune. Flashing forward, he shows us Wickett and Pickles 25 years into what was already an autumnal marriage: addled, ornery, but essentially loving. Thanks to John's well-meaning stewardship, they finish their days consigned to adjoining beds, unable to escape each other's company while they swallow their last crumbs of consciousness. Hence the comment about hell.

Hence also Beckett. Give them a few years and a couple of world wars, and the Wicketts might be Nagg and Nell: emblems of an age, an empire, and a set of social conventions consigned to the trash cans of history.

Michael Halberstam's production for Writers' Theatre doesn't deal explicitly with any of these matters. All smart pacing and arch delivery, it may get a little dull when there isn't an astute old lady in the audience to provide subversive commentary. Genuinely enthralling here are the performances by a triumvirate of veteran Chicago actors in central roles: Greg Vinkler as Captain Wickett, Linda Kimbrough as Amelia Pickles, and Ross Lehman as a barrister, a judge, a nurse, a cleric, a bon vivant, and Amelia's confidant, Nellie Thimble.

Vinkler played Wickett last summer in a Door County production by the Peninsula Players, where he's the artistic director; he obviously knows he was born for muttonchops and polite consternation, and he conveys that knowledge immediately. With her marvelously various eyes, Kimbrough is able to run the table on Pickles, letting her be pinched, cunning, wrathful, coy--and unexpectedly, painfully tender during a passage in which she briefly opens herself to Wickett. Lehman can be overbearing at times, especially as the fey bon vivant, who has the same pronunciation issues as Elmer Fudd. But he also delivers delight and precision during a bravura bit as the barrister. Now and then it's fun just to watch his facial muscles work. I can't say for sure whether Smith consciously built hell into The Uneasy Chair, but there's no doubt he's provided some wonderful opportunities for these expert actors.

When: Through 11/27: Tue-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 6 PM. Also 5 PM Sat.

Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe

Price: $45-$57

Info: 847-242-6000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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