Child Left Behind

I learned a few interesting things about what a dystopian world (at least according to celebrated British playwright Edward Bond’s Chair) will look like in the year 2077: ·Curiously, people will still use voice recorders similar to the ones we use today! ·Laptops will still exist and they will look amazingly like the Toshiba Satellite on which I’m typing this review! ·Most sadly, house music and death metal will still blast from passing cars! (They’ll still be cars!)

Such curiosities bring to mind John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York. Set too in a dystopian future, the history of the civilized world depends on super classified information stored on…wait for it…an audiocassette. Somehow, as I left the drive-in with my girlfriend, Liz, and popped in a cassette of Van Halen’s Fair Warning, that possibility seemed preposterous even in 1981.

Quibbles with lazy prop design aside (to be fair, the script calls for a laptop), one problem with works set in the future is that the viewer has no choice but to indulge the creator’s vision and systems of logic. Another playwright might view the future as utopian, glittering. For Edward Bond it’s all pretty much downhill; Chair is a singular vision of depravity, poverty, inhumanity and authoritarianism. No, anyone who’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, or is a sci-fi buff, will realize that Bond’s vision is not a particularly original one; but, as presented in Chair, it’s a coherent and frightening one nonetheless.

In the year 2077, civil rights have been crushed. Human emotions like pity and kindness are forbidden. Bond’s city of the future is one where people fear looking out their windows. They rarely venture outside and they stick to themselves. The streets are ruled by the military and the mentally ill. Everyone’s life is catalogued. The slightest violations of government dictates are punishable by imprisonment, torture or death. It’s in this city of the horrible future that we meet Alice (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and her emotionally underdeveloped son, Billy (Will Rogers).

Alice found Billy in a garbage bin 26 years before and, because she felt pity for the foundling, kept him for a few days rather than turn him in to the state. Soon she realized that her delay would cause grave repercussions. In Chair’s world, such actions represent a death sentence.

Billy, who has never left his domicile, experiences the world only through his imagination. He spends his days drawing infantile pictures with crayons, which he hangs on the walls of his and Alice’s sparsely furnished two-room apartment. Billy is a likeable guy but he gets annoying after a while. Think of a much tenser version of “Simon,” Mike Myers’ famous Saturday Night Live character. Bond lets Billy prattle on nonsensically for way too long with only occasional but piercing profundity, particularly in the third picture (Bond calls scenes “pictures”). It’s not the fault of Mr. Rogers, who does a fine job illustrating Billy’s excitability and nervous tics.

Back to the problem of pity. Well, Alice is at it again with that darned kindness and pity. Alice, against her better judgment, stands at the window, watching the street below in this apocalyptic, violent age. Alice has been observing a soldier and his elderly female prisoner wait for a bus. Billy surprisingly convinces Alice to bring the soldier a chair on which to sit while he waits. This simple kind decision propels the play’s action in unforeseen and deadly directions.

Unfortunately, both Ms. Haberle as Alice and Alfredo Narciso as the Soldier tend to overact their roles. In Haberle’s case, it’s a bit hard to believe that someone can shake so much without suffering a calamitous health problem right on the spot. David Zinn’s forceful scenic design is appropriately spare and antiseptic—cold. When Alice draws the curtains and allows the sun to slice through the grayness, it is both welcome and overpowering; this is a play of extremes. Annika Boras, as the government officer who invades Alice’s home to conduct an inquiry into the events that have transpired from her simple act, turns in a most creepy and convincing performance.

Earlier this year, Bond said in an interview with Michael Billington of The Guardian that, “If my plays are staged and acted in the way in which they are written, what comes across is a colossal affirmation of life." With expert direction by Robert Woodruff, here Bond is right. For Alice, there are drastically few ways to retain one’s dignity and identity. Yet, she finds and embraces one that will involve a major break in her family unit. It occurs to her in her darkest moment, like a welcome sliver of sunlight in a garbage bin.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post