In Frederique Michel's delightful production of Eugene Ionesco's darkly absurdist comedy, a young Student (Justin Davanzo) arrives at a Paris home, excited for his first lesson with his new tutor: a tightly wound Professor (Liz Pocock). At first the Professor is diffident and unsure of himself, and the Student seems confident and optimistic. However, as the lesson continues, the balance of power shifts. The Student discovers he doesn't know any of the answers, and an escalating toothache prevents him from concentrating on the Professor's lecture. The Professor becomes increasingly unhinged, and he concludes his class by presenting his student with a long, hard, brutal gift that is anything but a diploma.
In most productions of Ionesco's play, the Student is portrayed by a cheerful young female, while the role of the increasingly oppressive Professor is played by a man.
However, in her subtle staging, Michel flips the genders, adding an intriguing and indefinably disturbing sexual charge to the piece. The interactions have the feel of a creepy role-playing game, the characters playing out their parts in costumes that give them their personalities.
Michel's direction, with blocking that's choreographed to the slightest gesture and nuanced glance, boasts unusually focused comic timing. That said, a jarring, clumsy note is sounded the show's final coda, in which the Professor dons an armband showing the emblem of the Republican Party. In most other productions, the armband is a Nazi swastika—the change is a thematic conceit that represents an awkward parallel with the modern day. In any case, Davanzo and Pocock play off each other hilariously in this otherwise cracklingly smart and intellectually bracing production. If you've never seen any Ionesco, this serves as a great introduction.
"La Leçon/The Lesson," presented by and at City Garage, 1340-1/2 4th St. (Alley), Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 5:30 p.m. Oct. 22-Dec. 12. $10-20. (310) 319-9939.