Michael Doonan, Jeffrey Binder and Darren Hill.  Photo: Anthony La Penna

Michael Doonan, Jeffrey Binder and Darren Hill. Photo: Anthony La Penna

By Stanford Friedman

What sentiment lurks behind a smile? What disdain is captured in a smirk? Such are the questions that linger over the mesmerizing production of Music Hall. Produced by Chicago’s TUTA Theatre, with stinging direction by Zeljko Djukic, the show is currently holed up in the tiny upstairs theater at 59E59.

The play is French, written by Jean-Luc Lagarce, with a fine translation by Joseph Long, and its European absurdist roots are clearly showing. Amid minimal settings (a stool, a trunk, a ladder, a curtain and a mirror), and with pointedly repetitive dialogue, two clownish chorus boys (Michael Doonan, Darren Hill) are not waiting for a Godot. Rather, they have been stuck with one for a while. Known only as The Artiste, this femme fatale of their touring theatrical company, this grand dame, controls their fate and spins yarns of their life on the road, playing abysmal theaters where “the stage wasn’t deep enough.” She preaches the gospel of persevering with a long smile, and throws shade on the evil smirkers who manage the shabby venues they have visited. They are three unreliable narrators, on a touring circuit of hell, where furniture and costumes could catch fire and where audience members are here advised to avoid the front row if they do not wish to be high-fived, quizzed, or occasionally petted.

Unlike past productions of the show performed in Europe, a man, Jeffrey Binder, is cast as The Artiste, and he gives a tour de force performance. With a rubbery face and large, moist eyes, he is, at first, masculine, referring to his character as if it were someone else. Then, over the course of 80 minutes he completely transforms into her. Donning a skirt and blouse, wearing rouge, and a feather boa, he steers clear of camp, so inhabiting the role that a general aura of awe fills the room. Her tale sometimes turns outward to reflect on the play. This is not a story, she advises, it’s a number, making us reexamine the definition of those terms. Punctuating his performance, Binder twice transitions into the role of a smirking theater manager, playing him as a gaspy, terrifying ogre, the devil himself. Doonan and Hill, meanwhile, provide fine support, each with their own rakish smiles and suppressed longings.

A note about the playwright: Mostly unknown in the U.S., Lagarce wrote some 25 plays before his untimely demise in 1995, at age 38. Music Hall was one of his later works. It was written in 1988, the same year he was diagnosed with AIDS, at the height of the epidemic. Arguably, most French absurdism can be seen as a treatise on mortality and the purposefulness of existence, but this show is notable in that, given the circumstances, it could have been a seriously dark and depressing work. The writing, though, seems more an escape from his condition than a meditation upon it. Unless, that is, The Artiste is channeling Lagarce’s struggle when she says, “Having smiled a long, slow smile, has always been my way of exercising my strength and power over [the audience], of ordering them to be silent.” Somehow, absurdly, it is all very life affirming. In a busy month for theater, a small show like this one could be easily overlooked. But for anyone who needs reminding of the raw power of a well-crafted play in an intimate space, it cannot afford to be missed.

Music Hall – Written by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Translated by Joseph Long, Directed by Zeljko Djukic.

WITH: Jeffrey Binder (The Artiste), Michael Doonan (First Boy), and Darren Hill (Second Boy).

Sets and costumes by Natasha Djukic; lighting by Keith Parham; sound by Christian Gero; Wain Parham, music director; Aileen McGroddy, movement director; Allison Raynes, stage manager. Presented by TUTA Theatre Chicago at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200, www.59e59.org, Through Sunday, April 12. Running time: 80 minutes.