by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & et's get the bad stuff out of the way: On Friday night, at the fourth performance of "The Wacky World of David Ives" at CenterStage (through Aug. 25), the audience was small, the humor often strained, the timing sometimes off. Ives may be an acknowledged master of a genre that might be called "absurdist intellectual one-act comedy with lots of wordplay," but even his scripts can sometimes seem dated or over-extended. The six CenterStage actors, while competent, didn't soar into any exceptional insights.
But let's also consider the positive side of the ledger. Two of the seven playlets pull off a difficult trick: moving past jokey farce to the kind of thinking person's comedy that elicits altered frames of reference and changes of heart. A couple of the actors pull off some finely observed moments. And Tim Behrens directs traffic capably, even adding a nice directorial flourish to a scene about the superficiality of small talk: He sends his actors out into the audience, as if to suggest that we all do it, we all say things we don't really mean. In an evening of theater that's merely so-so, there are still enough good moments that we shouldn't just dismiss Ives out of hand as the wrong choice for dinner theater (as some theater vets may do).
Paying any more compliments, however, is going to require a littlemore criticism of what's not working so well. This is sketch comedy -- smart, silly and thought-provoking comedy -- but still trying to force its humor. It's spontaneity that's been premeditated, and you'd damn well better laugh. It's hit-and-miss material.
Single-idea skits present a comic contrast and then fail to offer any more. Most of the humor drains away. We're not being entertained; we're hoping it'll get better while glancing at our watches. Examples: A guy thinks he's found his identity ... as a typewriter. Or another guy (in a different play) falls in love with ... a washing machine. We get the jokes, and they're cute, and they overstay their welcome. It takes greater comedic talent than the CenterStage cast possesses to pull off this kind of material.
A skit about three monkeys complaining while being forced to type ceaselessly -- it's an experiment to see if eventually they'll end up writing Hamlet -- demands the difficult combination of physical comedy with sophisticated wordplay. The chimps aren't frenetic enough; diction suffers; the highbrow literary references get garbled. The result? The sight gags don't come off well, and neither does the smarty-pants comedy.
The two best-performed one-acts, however, move deftly from game-playing silliness into deeper psychological waters. In "Sure Thing," Stephanie Brush and Scott Finlayson enact a couple's first meeting; the scene restarts every time one of them says something that's a relationship deal-breaker. It's silly and fun, with the two characters initially coming off as capricious and childish. But as one date-ending bell after another sounds, the cumulative effect is a reminder: We're all so self-focused that it's a miracle any of us ever finds a mate. A gimmick leads to an insight, and Ives' script comes off well here because Brush and Finlayson can turn on an emotional dime from flirty to cold, from assertive to bashful.
In general, Finlayson does "bashful" better than he does "assertive." His aw-shucks, nebbishy quality works well for a perplexed construction worker in "Babel's in Arms" and for the single-guy-at-a-bar he portrays in "Sure Thing." But his crouching, underarm-scratching chimpanzee in "Words, Words, Words" and his veddy British narration of a film about the mating rituals of mayflies in "Time Flies" could both afford to be more flamboyant. When broad farce insists on going over the top, don't stay rooted in the foxhole -- scamper over the ridge and take some risks.
The other standout scene, "English Made Simple," also involves Brush. A couple meet again years after their breakup; while their small talk is parsed, another, identically dressed couple pronounce what they're really feeling (which doesn't exactly meet Miss Manners' Standards of Niceness). You know a nerve's been hit when an audience starts howling over their own usually unspoken thoughts. And there's something liberating about sexual double-entendres and off-color expletives being thrown around with comic abandon. These may not be scripts for children, but Ives still appeals, with all his playfulness, to the kid inside all us grown-ups. (The smart-mouthed, sassy kid, maybe.) Yet even here, a switch in the men's casting -- Buddy Todd as the kind of officious instructor he does so well, and Skyler Chance McKinley as the romantic lead playing opposite Brush as the flirty-assertive woman that she does so well -- would have balanced the scene better.
Even the best moments in this "Wacky" show, then, are flawed -- which, along with the specter of chronic low attendance, raises the question of how well Spokane's dinner-theater experiment is doing. Fine food and thought-provoking theater are both specialized and demanding areas of expertise. Is it really likely that both would be mastered under one roof? At CenterStage so far, the cooking is better than the acting.
For further discussion of dinner theater at CenterStage and suggestions on how to re-energize it, visit & lt;a href="http://stagethrust.blogspot.com" & Stagethrust & lt;/a & .