With All in the Timing and Mere Mortals, David Ives bolted onto the American theatrical scene like some kind of enfant terrible et comique. He wrote smart, absurd, comedies, full of serious wordplay and amusing ruminations: the Donald Barthelme of American contemporary theater.
In "The Universal Language," for example, from All in the Timing, a wacked-out professor teaches a nonsensical language to a shy student. The whole thing might have veered into mediocre Marx Brothers, but Ives manages to convince us that longing can overcome even gross miscommunication.
"Variations on the Death of Trotsky" may have had the Russian anarchist running around with a hatchet stuck in his skull for the duration, but it had serious points to make about the subjectivity and politics of historical accounts. My own favorite from All in the Timing was "Sure Thing," in which two people meet on a blind date. They make small talk, and everything seems to be proceeding nicely -- until the man starts giving unacceptable answers to probing questions. A bell chimes, the date starts over -- and over, and over. "Have you read Anna Karenina?" "Oh, I just love Faulkner," comes the reply. Ding.
The device seems ludicrous until we start ruminating about the reasons we've had for dumping people: He laughs funny, she has too many freckles. We giggle, but we're also pondering how our egotism stacks the odds against any relationship anywhere ever working. Ives isn't merely" writing clever comedy -- but after the laughter stops, the thinking laughing begins.
If you enjoyed the metaphysical silliness of the Civic's 1998-99 productions of All in the Timing and Mere Mortals, however, the Civic's current Ives offering, Lives of the Saints, will be disappointing.
In this later venture -- drawn from another of his collections, Time Flies and Other Plays -- Ives isn't doing thinking persons' comedy anymore -- it's just comedy. And there ain't much meat on dem bones.
Spoofs about doppelgangers, an Agatha Christie mystery, the Tower of Babel and the Maytag repairman's love affair with his washing machine seldom rise above the level of Saturday Night Live sketches. At least SNL has the excuse of being done live, written in a week to the demands of current events and the peculiarities of this week's guest host.
The five scenarios in Saints all seem more like one-note jokes. You can just sense the set-ups churning in Ives's mind: Now, what if I went about trying to explain how and why the Maytag repairman got into his line of work? Did anybody in the Babel neighborhood wonder how useful or even practical it would be to build a tower reaching all way up to God?
"Enigma Variations," to take another example, wants to examine how our own egotism produces the odd sensation that perhaps we all exist in dual universes: I'm me, I'm wonderful, and how much more wonderful if there were more of me! Earlier, broadly comparable Ives plays ("The Philadelphia," "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread") took a similar premise further. But "Enigma" simply devolves into a bunch of repeated actions -- wrapped up when some guy in drag comes out and tacks on a coda.
"The Mystery of Twicknam Vicarage" wants to spoof Agatha Christie stereotypes, but -- except for introducing a highly sexed victim who comes randily back to life -- never gets outside those stereotypes. Saturday Night Live could do it -- has done it -- better. And shorter.
At least "Babel's in Arms" offers some comments on theology, gender politics and class warfare amid all the physical gags. In it, Sarah Keller is supposed to be the bossy businesswoman who only cares about profits and threatens her workers with dire consequences if this damn tower doesn't get built large and built soon. But the sight of a diminutive old lady waving a plastic sword twists the joke, so that it's at her expense, not at the expense of the two cowering slaves.
The title piece, which ends the evening, is both more serious and of higher quality than the other four mini-plays -- with the result that it seems entirely out of character with the rest of the show. Two working-class Catholic women from Chicago are preparing the funeral breakfast for the burial of a mutual friend; the quiet way they go about their not-entirely-random acts of beauty and kindness demonstrates why saints aren't simply pictures in a prayer book -- they're alive and among us today, baking pies in a church basement somewhere. Furthermore, Ives has hit upon some staging devices that underscore how the spiritual dimension surrounds us, and how, when we kindle our generosity, all our lives are full of saintliness.
The four other pieces were funny without much point; the evening's concluding play, the title piece, wasn't funny but had something to say. And this from a playwright who's capable of being both funny and smart at the same time.
An uneven ensemble shows some bright spots. Kerry Greeson showed good range, from a seductive Spirit of the Spin Cycle (in the Maytag bit) to a dowdy old cleaning lady in frayed apron and pink fuzzy slippers. Paul Villabrille's best moments came as Gorph, one of the sycophantic slaves in the Tower of Babel spoof; he knows how to pull off a cheesy, wincing smile. The evening's funniest moment comes from Scott Finlayson, whose dim-witted slave groans and curls his toes with the effort of actually thinking.
John Hart spends the whole evening wearing ridiculous costumes and speaking in ridiculous accents; yet never goes over the top. Jon Lutyens is in deadly earnest (and therefore quite funny) as the Maytag repairman.
But in "Twicknam Vicarage," the ensemble lacked the quicksilver, Noel Coward wit-flash that's necessary to keep the jokes seeming clever and not merely ponderous.
With Ives's comedies, it is all in the timing. Or at least it was. Despite the best efforts of the Civic's ensemble in Lives of the Saints, Ives's timing has clearly gone off.