Starring David Ferry, Michelle Monteith. Written by Eugène Ionesco. Directed by Soheil Parsa. Lower Ossington Theatre, to Dec. 1.
Two years after blowing us away in Sarah Kane’s Blasted at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, David Ferry and Michelle Monteith have teamed up again for a revival of The Lesson. While this version of Eugène Ionesco’s 1950s absurdist classic, produced by the Modern Times Stage Company, doesn’t pack the same visceral punch as Kane’s nightmare play, it proves the actors’ creepy chemistry was no fluke.
Ferry and Monteith once again adopt a dominant/submissive dynamic, this time in the roles of professor and pupil. Monteith’s wide-eyed schoolgirl has arrived to receive private tutoring from Ferry’s craggy academic and Ionesco sets the nonsensical tone from the get-go. The pupil is working towards a doctorate, but upon examination proves incapable of grasping the rudiments of arithmetic. The professor, avuncular and encouraging at first, grows increasingly exasperated and dictatorial. Soon, he has embarked on a wildly tangled discourse in philology, oblivious as his student writhes in pain from a toothache, and his cruelty only gets worse.
Ionesco’s one-act echoes another postwar work, George Orwell’s 1984, in equating totalitarianism with the mutilation of language and logic. Director Soheil Parsa’s blunt, symbolic approach ensures we grasp that lesson. But Ferry is never less than riveting as he transforms from a mild-mannered, bespectacled scholar into an apoplectic fascist spouting gibberish. It’s like watching Mr. Dressup morph into Adolf Hitler. Monteith’s dense pupil is at first charmingly perky; later, in a state of distress, she makes her agony so palpable that your own teeth begin to ache. Their co-star, tall, bullet-headed Costa Tovarnisky, adds to the absurdity by playing the professor’s rosy-cheeked maid. Forget the play’s message and just enjoy their madness.