Stephanie Roth Haberle and Will Rogers
in Chair
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Stephanie Roth Haberle and Will Rogers
in Chair
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Edward Bond's Chair, now playing at the Duke on 42nd Street in a Theatre for a New Audience production, begins with simple mysteriousness and rapidly accelerates to levels of truly thrilling tautness and disconcerting brutality.

Set in London in the year 2077, Chair centers on Alice (Stephanie Roth Haberle), a nervous middle-aged woman, and Billy (Will Rogers), a mentally and physically challenged young man, who share an apartment. As the play opens, Alice is fixated on what she sees outside the window: a soldier (played with both fierceness and a certain denseness by Alfredo Narciso) and a prisoner (Joan Macintosh) whom he's escorting. Somehow, the prisoner seems familiar to Alice.

In a moment of lucidity, Billy suggests that since the soldier has been standing and waiting for a bus for a long period, Alice could take one of the chairs from the apartment and offer it to him -- in order to see the prisoner at closer range, without breaking any of the laws that weigh heavily on them. In this London of the future, a "permanent state of alert" exists, and anyone breaking the law is sent to a place called PrisCit, a gulag that's the equivalent of a death sentence. Alice hesitates at first, but soon leaves with the chair. Mayhem that Alice could not foresee soon ensues, and a punctilious officer (imbued with menacing crispness by Annika Boras) from the Welfare Department arrives at the apartment to question Alice about the events in the street.

Bond's portrait of a society in which its citizens have been seemingly stripped of all civil liberties, while not necessarily prescient, does have certain present-day parallels. As the officer describes PrisCit, it's almost impossible to keep thoughts of Guantanamo out of one's mind. If this isn't enough to send chills down one's spine, the sort of acute fear that drives all of the characters is.

Robert Woodruff's graceful staging, which embellishes the final moments of Bond's script with terrific ambiguity and leaves theatergoers contemplating several questions about Alice's original interest in the prisoner, starts with a cool nervous simmer and builds intensely. Simultaneously, he's elicited two highly polished performances from his principal actors. Haberle's Alice is a tightly wound woman, who can display not only fierceness and a steely resolve, but also genuine maternal compassion. Rogers brings sensitivity to his well-crafted portrayal of Billy, never turning the young tics, twitches, and mercurialness to caricature.

Scenic designer David Zinn provides an appropriately sterile atmosphere for the production, framing the action within the confines of a starkly white room which has two doors and a window, which lighting designer Mark Barton often bathes in a harsh white glare. At other times, he uses a jaundiced yellow, which beautifully conveys the sickness festering within this sad and eerily familiar future.