If there was ever a perfect site for Armchair America: The Recline of Western Civilization, a new comedy by Tom Bondi and Mark Holt, then Dixon Place is it. With its signature motley seating options, from sofas to wing chairs, Dixon Place has a milieu to complement both the show's topical content (armchairs) and its non-traditional structure. The fact that Dixon Place's unusual furnishings are even a subject of note indicates that one's choice of seat does indeed make a statement--the very phenomenon which Bondi and Holt explore in their humorous and at times poignant piece.
The title of Armchair America, and the high camp of its promotional materials, seem to indicate that a cultural exploration of armchairs will take place. Some of the play is comprised of this type of analysis: We are introduced to a band of 11 characters (and the armchairs in question, via slides), whose testimonies are interspersed with authoritative PBS-like commentary by a narrator (played with headset-wearing, slide-advancing accuracy by Lora Chio).
Amidst a bona fide and well-researched history of the chair, witty and insightful notes are sounded about the overlooked importance of chairs in our society. "Chair propaganda begins in preschool," our narrator informs us (i.e. musical chairs). The most damning ill-wish for one accused of a serious crime? "I hope you get the chair." It was somewhat disappointing, then, when play's main thrust was not one of cultural exploration, but a parade of psychological profiles.
As much as the play in some ways asserts itself as a cultural critique, the narratives feature chairs functioning more as a psychological lexicon than as a site for cultural analysis. When two adult sisters bicker over who will inherit their father's armchair, the chair does not so much exemplify consumerism or psychic decay, but how hostilities can come to center on one object. This psychological emphasis is exemplified when one of the characters, a therapist-turned-chairologist, implores her patients, "Remember the chairs of your past and then let them go so we can experience new furniture."
Only in one monologue does the play's own chairology transcend personal neuroses: An angry man expounds his views on women and how they can't possibly appreciate armchairs. This stands out because the person-chair connection isn't so immediately lucid, and seems to make a statement broader than that of just one person.
The actors' embodiment of a wide array of characters is to be commended, as are their lightning-quick switches between them. Director Gina Kaufman has done an excellent job of sharpening these transitions, and the pacing is quick but never too manic for the moving moments to sink in. Holt's portrayal of Sassy, one of the feuding sisters, and of a pick-up artist especially stand out, as does Bondi's performance of the pick-up artist's lover. Both actors play both men and women, though Bondi's women tend toward the stereotypical, especially in body language.
Old-school psychology notwithstanding, the show's design elements set a wonderfully campy tone. The narrator's interjections are punctuated by Christopher Leyva's colorful, inspired collages of people's iconic relations to their chairs. Lighting designer Miguel Ringler makes good use of subtly different settings to give the actors a springboard for indicating different characters. And for pre-show music Ellen Santaniello has culled more songs mentioning armchairs than this layperson ever thought might exist.
Armchair America is an innovative project, and one has good reason to hope that this version at the lab of Dixon Place will springboard it to finding its specific voice--or certain armchair--and taking full advantage of its enormous potential.
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