This ‘Bald Soprano’ is shrewd about nonsense

By Nina Metz
Special to the Tribune

A husband fails to recognize his wife, and vice versa. A clock chimes, and time freezes. A doorbell rings, but no one is there. In Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” — receiving a terrific production by The Hypocrites at the Building Stage — logic has lost all currency.

The play debuted in 1950 in Paris and was Ionesco’s first work for the stage, inspired by the insipid and nonsensical contents of a phrase book he used while learning English.

“How curious, and what a coincidence!” Or, to quote another character: “It’s a useless precaution, but absolutely necessary.” Contradictions reign supreme, as does the soothing prattle of stupid conversation. Every line is a riddle without an answer, but do not expect the script to acknowledge anything is awry. Ionesco called it “a completely unserious play,” and he wasn’t kidding.

With director Sean Graney at the wheel, the show is battier than even Ionesco might have intended, melding absurdist sketch comedy and surreal Dadaist pranksterism.

Color-saturated performances collide with Courtney O’Neill’s superstylized black-and-white set and Graney’s monochromatic costumes (ranging in theme from little girl lost to tennis, anyone?). The final result is the strongest and loosest effort from the company all season.

It has been a long time since Graney displayed his sense of humor — not since 2004, when he winningly combined commedia and pop culture in the 19th Century fairy tale “Leonce und Lena.” It is a directorial talent he should tap more often; he has access to the kinds of actors (including the stellar cast here) who understand his experimental vision and willingly follow him down the rabbit hole, exploring their own silliness along the way.

The play is all setup, and no plot. A quartet of proper English types meets for a dinner party where food is never served. (Mechelle Moe and Kurt Ehrmann play the Smiths; Samantha Gleisten and Steve Wilson play the Martins.)

Conversations erupt and then end just as abruptly. A character who turns out to be the Fire Chief (Ryan Bollettino) arrives via zip-line, and proceeds to give out fire badges according to mood. The maid (Jennifer Santanello) announces her day: “I formed a one-man band. I made a helmet out of meat. I adopted an Indonesian boy. I ordered a double half-caff soy cappuccino.”

As one might guess, portions of the dialogue are improvised while staying within the framework of the script. The whole of womanhood is reduced to “puppies and yeast”; men do not fare any better, being comprised of “nachos and emotional distance.” This might be one show that actually makes reaction shots funny — just watch Wilson’s hangdog visage, or Moe as she shakes her head “no” slowly and almost imperceptibly.

Like a dangling thread that unravels a dress with a single tug, Graney’s production is one giant yank, and the audience is in on the joke from the start. Random pop cultural references are frequent, embracing everything from horror film clichés to the theme from “Cheers.”

The title itself turns up as a line later in the play and bares no connection to a certain balding HBO Soprano — but given Graney’s off-the-grid approach, it would not be out of place.