"No," says Clov.
"You loved me once."
"Once," Clov shoots back, and that word becomes a stark motif, reminiscent of some lost time when life must have flourished outside, when Nagg and Nell loved each other, and when there was sawdust at the bottom of their pails (instead of sand). These decrepit people are at the end of something, and the question is how to go on.

Language is the best reason to see any Beckett play. When Hamm gets sick of his parents he asks Clov to "bottle" them -- put the lids on their pails. ("Are they bottled yet?") Blaine Souza's coarse, low voice is ideal for Hamm, and even if he doesn't always seem fatalistic enough for a blind man trapped in a chair, he diminishes that problem by getting his pacing right. Larry Spenler does a similar job with Clov, who should sound mordant but sometimes just seems exhausted: He stays in character by keeping his lines and ragged steps in rhythm. Part of the credit for this show's pacing has to go to the director, John Warren, who senses that silences in Beckett are as important as the words. Nagg and Nell are also excellent; Christopher Kuckenbaker takes the risk of affecting a slight British accent, but he has a talented voice and his bitchy, demanding, bald-headed Nagg is maybe the most entertaining character in the show. The story he tells Nell about a tailor, in three voices, is hilarious; the woeful way Nell stares when he's finished only makes it better. Almost nothing pleases Nell. She's sour, pettish, and bald -- Emily Lambert had to shave her head for the part -- and she eventually dies, meaning she stays in the trash can. Lambert is nicely in character with this strange shadow of a woman, and I suspect that being "bottled" for hours at a time might be the best training for any actor who wants to do Beckett well.

It only could have helped Joshua Marchesi, at least, with his Ionesco. In The Chairs, Marchesi and Justine Turner play an ancient married couple who hold a dinner party so the Old Man can make his life's pronouncement. The Old Man is 95, the Old Woman 94. When their guests arrive they bring in chairs until the room is full of invisible people. The funniest part of this show is the unspecific malaise that interrupts the couple now and then and sinks them into a quiet horror. Turner especially gets a nice awful tug on one end of her mouth. But the silences in The Chairs aren't supposed to be highlights, and Marchesi and Turner defuse Ionesco's best lines by trying to be absurd. They also don't really seem aged -- both are young actors -- although Turner at least has invented an entertaining alternate persona that approximates a doting old woman. She has tight-lipped, frustrated faces and a potent grating voice. But Marchesi works against himself. He strains to be old, or at least something different from what he is -- which is an earnest young American man -- and achieves nothing. A speech he delivers in a Southern preacher's voice near the end proves he can focus on a farcical role if he wants to; but most of the time he seems to interpret "absurdist" as "wacky," and the audience just stares.

Of course, there's an argument for playing Ionesco wackily. If the people in Endgame deal with extinction by staring straight into it, the old couple in The Chairs cope by trying to flee. Their social pleasantries with their invisible guests are pure hysteria; so why shouldn't an actor be over the top? The play even wraps up nicely with a ghostlike Orator (played by Khari Jones), moving exaggeratedly to a framed pad of paper, where he writes down the Old Man's message and then tries to read it out loud. This is wacky. And it's fine for the finale; but the rest of Ionesco is subtler, and if his script is played with no dark feeling the routines take on the same optimism he's trying to ridicule, and dwindle into the same hysteria.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Wit's End
Oscar Wilde: Diversions & Delights. By John Gay. Directed by Kevin Jackson. Starring Ken Ruta. At the Stage Door Theater, 420 Mason (at Geary), through June 29. Call 788-9453.

Of the two pages of aphorisms by Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde collected in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, none are conspicuously missing from Oscar Wilde: Diversions & Delights. The play isn't entirely scripted out of Bartlett's, but its appeal does mostly rest on the maxims of a man whose name is synonymous with wit and verbal acrobatics. The conceit is an imaginary Paris lecture in 1899; the text is a casserole of excerpts from his plays, poems, journals, and letters; bits of biography; and original links by John Gay. The show is a testament to Wilde's talent: A century after the prison sentence that ruined his life a good play can be constructed from his scraps.

Wilde's imprisonment for "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons" destroyed his reputation but has ironically made him a latter-day gay icon. And as the popularity of Frasier attests, even his elitism is back in style. Diversions & Delights tries to present the real man behind the armor of wit and myth. But Wilde's somber post-prison writings, perhaps dulled by his absinthe habit, reveal little vulnerability. Every concession to tenderness -- toward his wife, his two children, or his lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas -- is quickly matched by snide lashings against human stupidity and puritanical morality. Wilde wrote, "Conscience makes egotists of us all," and his egotistical obsession for his art over his humanity reigns supreme even in his personal writings; he repeated good punch lines to whatever crowd he was with and constructed his journal entries for later readers, all to ensure immortality for his creations.

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