As soon as you walk into the Nick Chapel Theater and spot the queen-size bed on stage, you’ll realize why director Leah Franqui ’09 wishes she hadn’t told her grandparents about “La Ronde: A Play in Ten Dialogues.” After all, they’re the offspring of the generation that banned Arthur Schnitzler’s play in 1921 on account of it being “an obscene work.”
This erotically charged show examines the chain of relationships formed between 10 different characters in various sexual situations. For each couple, there’s something preventing them from achieving real communication. After-sex conversations range from awkward and detached to cold and hostile, in complete contrast with the precoital ones, which abound with lies, fake compliments and corny small-talk. All of it sounds painfully familiar: The characters are purposefully stereotypical, allowing every audience member to identify with someone. Although the production succeeds in conveying a realistic impression of interaction between the sexes, it comes with visual poverty and absence of light humor that might turn off some viewers.
The objects on stage are limited to the attention-grabbing bed, two circular tables — one of which serves as a drinks cabinet — and scattered items of clothing that the actors eventually pick up and put back on in the awkwardly hurried style reminiscent of “Is-that-my-roommate’s-key-turning-in-the-lock?” college situations. These minimalist props represent a variety of settings which the viewer is left to imagine. Keeping the physical setting constant serves to underline the idea that each scene takes place in the same metaphorical space.
The structure of “La Ronde,” which is no less unconventional for the time, also helps draw a parallel between separate episodes. Each character appears in two adjacent scenes. In this one-act play the 10 scenes follow each other without an intermission. Viewers hardly have time to blink as after every scene one actor exits only to be immediately replaced by a new one, both on stage and in the lover’s arms. In that way, the similarities and differences in the intrapersonal dynamics of the different couples are drawn into a sharper focus.
The play’s main achievement is that, despite its delicate subject, it manages to steer clear of vulgarity while presenting the topic in a manner honest and raw enough to make it realistic. A comparison with the movie “Closer” pops into mind, both in the similar focus on the topic of relationships and sex, and in its straightforward and refreshingly unsugary approach.
The characters here are much more stereotypical, in fact blatantly so: They don’t even have proper names, but go by “The Soldier,” “The Poet,” “The Sweet Young Thing,” etc. The viewer sees them in typical sex situations such as the male’s failure to launch, drunken sex and women playing hard to get, and hears them utter the all-too-familiar “I wonder how many women you’ve held before me” and “I don’t like what you’ve made of me.” The actors deliver appropriately typified performances such as Chase Olivarius-McAllister’s ’09 faithful representation of a fickle, superficial and vain actress and Andrew Wagner’s ‘09 preppy and spoiled Young Man.
In fact, everything seems so real that the spell of artistic illusion is almost broken. Halfway through the play some might start wondering whether they wouldn’t get as much out of watching their neighbor cheat on her husband through the window as they do out of “La Ronde.” This being said, the play won’t have an equal appeal for everyone. While it isn’t devoid of comical moments, viewers looking for light entertainment or an outrageous sex talk will be disappointed. The laughter invoked by “La Ronde” is sometimes uncomfortable and cynical, but rarely light-hearted.
Theatergoers partial to lavish sets and mind-blowing special effects should likewise be warned. Unless you count the eye-candy value of seeing fellow undergraduates in various states of undress as an important indicator of the play’s visual appeal, the minimalistic “La Ronde” is far from being a treat for the senses.
In the end, “La Ronde” is one of those “different” shows worth going to once in a while. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to be in an environment where “Of course you’re stupid, that’s why I love you” is a legitimate expression of affection.
Friday and Saturday 7 p.m.