The clutter in Round House Theatre's limply antic revival of "The Chairs" is not simply a function of the wall of furniture that towers over the company's Silver Spring stage. The whole enterprise is overstuffed with shtick: silly accents, clownish gestures, breathless racing to and fro. The pair of young actors who ham their way through much of the production only brush the surface of Eugene Ionesco's classic absurdist comedy, about the desperate hollowness of life and the rituals we poignantly devise to fill it.
As imagined by Alain Timar, a Round House guest director from Theatre des Halles in Avignon, France, the play has a loopy, collegiate air. (Timar staged a version of this production at the Avignon Festival and has recast it here with Americans.) Ionesco, a cousin in modernist spirit to Samuel Beckett, labeled the play a tragic farce, but in Timar's conjuring, you're provided only a pale sort of jokiness.
Back in the 1950s, when Ionesco and absurdism were applying a fresh style of theatrical expression to the bleakness of the age -- atomic annihilation had only recently been introduced to the world -- audiences were often deeply moved. Director and critic Harold Clurman wrote of a 1957 London production that Ionesco had achieved "a sense of the loneliness, the torment, the aching inconsequentiality, the crushed tenderness" of existence. "The play," he observed, "is very funny and ineradicably sad."
It's difficult to make these claims for the Round House production. True, it is half a century on, and the novelty of a dark vaudeville such as "The Chairs" has worn away. Still, Timar's staging yields nothing like a profound communion with loneliness or torment. His actors, an adrenaline-crazed Marcus Kyd and Jessica Browne-White, are not encouraged to engage each other in a meaningful way. They're offered up as mere performers, hyper-aware that they're putting us on -- they're encouraged to address the audience directly -- and so Ionesco's idea of emptiness is conveyed as something rather stagy and shallow.
The characters in "The Chairs" are meant to be ancient people. The Old Man, Ionesco says, is 95, the Old Woman 94. They are supposed to have been married for an eternity, or 75 years (whichever works out to be longer). Much of the play concerns the grand evening they have devised for the visit of an invited speaker, the Orator. We see only the dozens and dozens of chairs they haul out as the evening progresses. They, however, are deeply occupied in small talk and fawning over their invisible guests, dignitaries who have come to listen to the speaker's edifying pearls.
Timar, using the English translation by Martin Crimp that was also the text for Simon McBurney's superb 1997 production for the London-based Theatre de Complicite, decides to make the characters mere striplings. With nose rings and hair dyed the colors of M&M's, Kyd and Browne-White inhabit what you might call a world of punk Ionesco. Timar's most inspired notion is a three-dimensional backdrop, a vast wall made up of every sort of chair you can think of. The bleat of a moody horn or tap of a somber drum is also sounded to supply at selected moments a plaintive, bluesy fanfare.
Anyone who has seen the parts played by older actors -- Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan did so mesmerizingly in McBurney's production -- may have a hard time figuring out why Timar went the youthful route. The play is enriched by an old couple's lived-in quality, the sense that each by instinct knows what's on the other's mind, that they share a history with each other and with those remarkable chairs. Here, the props never amount to much more than an assortment of vacant seats.
The Chairs, by Eugene Ionesco. Direction and set design by Alain Timar. Set adaptation for Round House, N. Eric Knauss; costumes, Denise Umland; lighting, Kenton Yeager; sound, Benjamin Chabas, Matthew M. Nielson. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Nov. 6 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.