STAGE REVIEW : Ionesco's 'Hunger and Thirst' for a Heaven

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied, said Jesus. But other hungers are not as easily satiated, said Eugene Ionesco. A man who's always ravenous for something new, for something better, will consume his own innards, his very identity. And end up in hell.

That's what happens to Jean, the restless spirit who travels through Ionesco's "Hunger and Thirst." Jean's saga, which opened at the Comedie Francaise in 1966, has finally reached the West Coast, in an adventurous production at the Odyssey.

Although Ionesco told director Maurice Attias that "Hunger and Thirst" is his "spiritual autobiography," it isn't one of his best plays. It lacks the comic crackle and the intensification of action that we associate with Ionesco. Just when the play should quicken, it bogs down in a protracted scene in which Jean sits on the sidelines while Ionesco scores polemical points against Brecht (a character is named Clown Brechtoll).

Nevertheless, "Hunger and Thirst" contains flashes of Ionesco's corrosive way with words. And it's interesting for the way it reverses the thrust of much of his earlier work. Hearth and home are enshrined in this play--not because they're perfect, but because they're secure. There is little ambivalence here in Ionesco's attitude toward Jean, the rugged individualist: He would have been much better off if he had settled for what he had.

The play is made up of three disjointed scenes, which more or less take Jean from heaven to purgatory to hell. Heaven is a sodden flat where he lives with his loving wife and baby; purgatory is a much brighter place, where Jean waits for a woman whom he can't quite remember; hell is an ersatz monastery, where hooded figures initially offer Jean hospitality but then enslave him, just as he finally learns the value of what he has lost.

At the Odyssey, most of the action takes place on a bed of raked planks, designed by Ajax Daniels and Stephen Glassman. The actors frequently step or fall into the spaces between the planks. The set works well in the first scene, grimly lit by Dawn Hollingsworth and Suzanne-Michele Northman. It suggests the swamplike conditions of the flat, which so annoy Jean, and it provides a platform from which he can leap in his furious attempts to escape.

But when the lights go up for the second scene, the planks are entirely too earthbound. They're more appropriate in the dank gloom of the third scene.

Jack Hatcheson plays Jean with a fierce sense of desperation, and Eva Wilder's wife looks so vital that she reinforces, almost too well, the attractions of domesticity. Jean chucks this woman because he wants a room with a view? Hard to believe.

Sandie Church does well in two roles, as Jean's daughter and as the keeper of the purgatorial museum where he waits for his mysterious lady. In the printed text, two men maintain the museum; Attias' use of one woman may add a subtle sexual repercussion, but it also eliminates a few lines--and a few opportunities for humor--that the play sorely needs.

Likewise, the ponderous final scene needs all the spectacle it can get, but some of it is missing at the Odyssey. A mysterious, silent Brother Superior character, who's dressed in white and walks on stilts through the text, never actually shows up here. Instead, Attias hints at his presence with a paltry lighting effect.

On the other hand, Attias' choices of recorded incidental music--selections from Franck, Chopin and Nino Rota's scores for Fellini films--enrich the text.

Performances are at 12111 Ohio Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50-$16.50; (213) 826-1626.

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