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Intelligent Instincts

In Eugene Ionesco's 'The Lesson,' the rip on academics is black, not bleak.

June 19, 1997|PHILIP BRANDES

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES — In the absurdist universe of Eugene Ionesco, communication--if it occurs at all--is one of those "inexplicable curiosities of vulgar empiricism" that delight, amuse and horrify at the same time. It's no surprise, therefore, that we find base instinct, rather than intellect, governing even the lofty pursuit of knowledge as Stages Theatre Center's summer Ionesco retrospective continues with "The Lesson."

On the heels of his highly regarded staging of "The Chairs" for Stages, Florinel Fatulescu brings the same razor-sharp precision and sardonic wit to this classic dismantling of the academic edifice. When a vivacious, comely Pupil (Sara Hammerman) hopscotches her way into the home of an illustrious Professor (Jeremy Lawrence) to receive tutoring for her pursuit of a "total doctorate," she gets more than she bargained for.

Aided by the amusing interruptions of an uppity maid (Lisa Forte), uniformly fine performances delicately but inexorably steer the initially comic encounter into an increasingly sinister power exchange. As the Pupil's confidence and vitality are drained away by the Professor's relentless barrage of pseudo-erudition, stifled rage emerges from behind his mask of befuddled temerity--with deadly results.

As he did in "The Chairs," Lawrence proves the ideal Ionesco protagonist--sympathetically downtrodden and striving to better his situation but undone by futile and ultimately destructive impulses.

Updating the play's implicit observation about the susceptibility of intellectuals to the corrupting lure of fascism, Fatulescu brings the message disturbingly close to home with the Professor's mutation into a modern-day skinhead. Yet through it all, the staging preserves the underlying whimsy and even affection Ionesco extended to even his most monstrous creations. His comedy may be as black as Beckett's, but it's nowhere near as bleak.


"The Lesson," Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m.; starting next week Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 10. $18. (213) 465-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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