The thing about theatre of the absurd is that unless it's done simply, it isn't funny — just silly and exhausting. Reality is always hovering over the ridiculous, and the absurdity is already present in the text. But for the current Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Ionesco double bill, Amy M. Wagner, who directed "The Lesson" (translated by Donald M. Allen), and Kevin Confoy, who directed "The Painting" (translated by George E. Wellwarth), start with the assumption that more is more. You want funny? I'll give you funny: circus-clown funny, even, at least in "The Painting." In both plays, Robert Klingelhoefer's set designs are beautiful and strange, the acting is good, and production values are high. Yet the goosed-up direction lays an egg.
In "The Lesson," a young student (a winning Jennifer Curfman) comes to a jovial professor (John Lenartz) for help in studying for her "total doctorate." Her ability to add seven plus one and come up with eight, not just once but several times in a row, is an accomplishment. But Ionesco's warnings about how language can twist and objectify human beings are overshadowed by undue emphasis on the professor's psychology as a pedophile and serial killer.
Produced in 1951, "The Lesson," in a particularly chilling moment involving a swastika, reminded Ionesco's French audience of its collaboration with the Nazi regime. Wagner substitutes the American flag. Iraq — we get it. Unfortunately, it's not equivalent. Few in the audience have collaborated with the murder of their neighbors. The oversimplification reduces the play to a bit of buffoonery.
"The Painting" is rarely produced, and it was a treat to see it, even in a less-than-compelling production. Ionesco's satire of capitalism and corruption includes a Stout Gentleman (Craig Smith, in clownish attire) who manipulates a painter (Laura Piquado's exaggerated servility is comic but wearying) into paying him for the privilege of hanging the painter's work in his house. The Stout Gentleman also has an abusive relationship with his hunchbacked, one-armed sister (a brusque Angela Madden). The benighted capitalist, who longs for beauty, discovers that when he shoots people, they become beautiful. He still, however, can't undo his own ugliness. The final scene is impressive — and would have been even more so if only this overdirected production had gotten to it sooner.
Presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Connelly Theatre, 220 E. Fourth St., NYC. Dec. 9-Jan. 6. Schedule varies. (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.