Ionesco has become unfashionable, along with much of the Theatre of the Absurd. His plays have roots in European nihilism, a stance out of step with an American experience where random violence, revolution, and state-sponsored terror have had no place. Until recently.
A Hell of a Mess begins with its protagonist (called simply The Character)'s last day at his job, when his colleagues take him out for a long, liquid, and increasingly unpleasant lunch. The Character (Anthony Ciccotelli) has inherited wealth, and his former colleagues are full of spite as a result. The first half of the play establishes The Character's mostly wordless (and often very funny) passivity in the company of his increasingly frantic, drunken, and outspoken colleagues, including old flame Lucienne (Cornelia Lorentzen), her husband Pierre Ramboul (Jeffrey Stephens), and coworker Jacques Dupont (Stephen E. Thornburg). Thornburg especially made an impression as the smarmy, embittered pal.
The second half of the play takes place in The Character's new apartment, where the neighbors immediately start sticking their noses into The Character's business. Gioia De Cari was funny as the vampish Woman with the Dog, and Jack Merlis showed great aplomb as the White Russian, espousing a bafflingly absurd czarist/atheist/existentialist philosophy. Jeffrey Stephens, who also played the Husband of the Woman with the Dog, showed himself to be a promising young actor.
The Character starts hanging out at a neighborhood bistro, where he meets a young woman, Agnes (Susan Barnes Walker), with whom he has a brief relationship (insofar as this passive creature can have such a thing). A revolution breaks out, complete with revolutionaries, and Agnes leaves. (David B. Martin was droll as three characters in the play, particularly the Proprietor of the bistro.)
So far only a few months seem to have passed. The remainder of the play covers the next 30 years or so, in which the Concierge - and, when she gets too old, her daughter - brings The Character his meals, while he sits and molders in an armchair. Descendants of the revolutionaries, and Agnes as an old woman, return in a sort of coda.
The two halves of the play don't cohere very well, proving that they called it Theatre of the Absurd for a reason. Thematically, the common factor is The Character's passivity, which gains him long life at the center of a maelstrom of more colorful characters' lives, but not much else. The play, despite its mood of sustained hilarity, leaves a sense of lost opportunity, aging, and death.
Cook's direction was red-hot; she kept the action moving along at a fast pace, and her actors generally stayed tightly focused. Speaking of focus, the usually appalling cabaret lights (Lisa Deo) at the New York Comedy Club (Space 24) actually worked in the play's favor, when clicked on an off instead of fading, especially for the transitions that add up to 30 years of wasted time. The costumes, by Caroline Goldrick, helped distinguish the plethora of characters, many double- and triple-cast. (Also featuring Barbara Hannaham, Ryan Judd, Caroline Goldrick, Matthew C. Hammond, and Tommy Barz. Set construction by Tommy Barz.) (See also Victims of Duty, Man with Bags, and Frenzy for Two or More.)
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Copyright 2001 John Chatterton