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THEATER REVIEW

'Uneasy Chair' is truly dysfunctional

The production at Ensemble Theatre in Santa Barbara can't decide if it's a comedy of manners or a parody.

December 04, 2007|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

The vow "Till death do us part" feels less like a declaration of love and more like a prison sentence for the characters in "The Uneasy Chair," Evan Smith's period comedy now playing at the Ensemble Theatre Company in Santa Barbara.

Set in Victorian England, the play makes fun of many things, including 19th century etiquette, British last names and especially the institution of marriage. Taking broad aim at a range of targets, this Oscar Wilde knockoff is so light and frivolous that it practically evaporates on contact.

"The Uneasy Chair" begins with an ordinary real-estate transaction. Capt. Josiah Wickett (Michael Rothhaar) is a middle-aged bachelor who has just agreed to rent a London flat owned by Miss Amelia Pickles (Lynne Griffin). In frequent asides to the audience, the characters reveal their personalities: Basically, she's a flighty spinster with a motor mouth; he's a crusty codger who prefers a "cold and distant" relationship with his landlady.

Trouble arrives in the form of Miss Pickles' officious niece Alexandrina (Kim Swennen), who attempts to spark a romance between her elders. At the same time, Wickett's shy nephew (Jason Chanos) falls in love with the young lady.

The resulting quartet of confusion climaxes with a letter that precipitates a forced marriage between the captain and Miss Pickles.

"The Uneasy Chair" straddles indecisively between a comedy of manners and an outright parody of that genre. The cast often tips the scale toward the latter, indulging in all sorts of manic face pulling and arm flapping; director Dennis Lee Delaney should have subdued some of their nuttier impulses.

Also in need of work are the British accents, which are distractingly inconsistent. Some actors rely heavily on rolled Rs while others sound like Baba Wawa.

More problematic, "The Uneasy Chair" has little original to say about marriage and takes a long time to say it. Yes, people often get hitched for the wrong reasons. And yes, cohabitation can be tedious and aggravating. But who doesn't already know that?

The best moments of the production are the unexpected pockets of eccentricity. Rothhaar makes his captain a convincingly off-putting person, looking magnificently annoyed at his new spouse. His death glares are priceless, and his slumped, defeated body language is expertly calibrated.

Nearly stealing the show in multiple roles, the versatile Matt Gottlieb brings admirable precision to his gallery of kooky types, including an opportunistic barrister, a mean judge and a nasty society lady named Nelly.

"The Uneasy Chair" ends on a strangely dark note that's far more adventurous than anything preceding it.

An epilogue moves the story 25 years in the future, revisiting the main characters in their old age. It's a bleak and pessimistic postscript -- a glimpse into the void that's liable to turn you off permanently to the idea of matrimony.

david.ng@latimes.com

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'The Uneasy Chair'

Where: Ensemble Theatre Company, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 23

Price: $25 to $40

Contact: (805) 962-8606 or www.ensembletheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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