Social personas are invented and discarded with dizzying speed in CoHo Productions' excellent The Uneasy Chair, a comedy of manners-slash-existential farce in which questions of love and loneliness are dressed in high-wire Wildean frippery. Playwright Evan Smith borrows literary conventions both Victorian and Shakespearean to disguise this "Cautionary Tale in Three Volumes," as it is subtitled; the first two acts careen along in a boisterous blur of mistaken identity and marital attrition, until the bottom drops sharply out in act three, reminding the audience that beneath every kiss, joke, and high-minded gag lies the unfortunate irrevocability of dying alone.
The courtly Captain Wickett (Dave Bodin) rents a room from Miss Amelia Pickles (Suzanne Fagan), a starry-eyed old woman who writes romance novels in her spare time. When the two attempt to orchestrate a romance between their respective niece and nephew, plans backfire, stars are crossed, and decisions are made for every reason but the right one.
Amanda Soden is ridiculously regal as the high-spirited, imperious Alexandrina Crosbie, niece to Miss Pickles, a society girl on the "wrong side of 25." When she takes up with Captain Wickett's nephew John Darlington (Josiah Bania), it's largely to prove to herself that she's not so shallow as to refuse to date a poor man (this effort, unsurprisingly, backfires). Meanwhile, mutual stubbornness ensnares Captain Wickett and Miss Pickles in an unwelcome relationship that, like the most depressingly unsexy bondage knot ever, only draws tighter as they struggle against it. The leitmotif here is the belief that people can control the way they are perceived by others—we can't, Smith tells us, and vainglorious attempts to do so will be our downfall.
There's no weak link in this cast, but there is a standout: Ben Plont single-handedly makes this show hilarious, displaying tremendous versatility, nuance, and range in a variety of bit parts, from a nosy lady neighbor to a lawyer representing clients on both sides of a divorce case. More funny roles for this guy, please.
It's hard to over-praise this show—director Shelly Lipkin got everything right, including the best casting I've seen all year, with a result that's handily one of the finest productions of the 2008/2009 season.