Twenty years ago, the writer David Ives arrived on the New York theatre scene with a bang when his evening of short comic plays opened off Broadway, where they remained for some 600 plus performances. Since then, he has adapted 32 musical books for the City Center Encores! series, and his original full length play Venus in Fur was a hit on Broadway last season. Now, Primary Stages launches their 28th season with a revival of All in the Timing, Ives’ evening of six short plays that established him as a comedy writer of imagination and skill, with this 20th Anniversary production at 59 East 59th Street.
Language is Mr. Ives’ chief tool in all six of these comic short plays. The first, Sure Thing, is seemingly a simple ‘boy and girl meet cute’ comedy, set in a coffee shop, in which the two get to know each other at a shared table. Ives manages to give us about sixteen variations on their journey of discovery by repeating bits of each section with alternate dialogue; if the boy asks the girl if she liked early Woody Allen films, she has answers that very from yes to no with all sorts of in-betweens thrown at us in instant mini-flashbacks, each introduced by the ringing of a bell.
Ives is served brilliantly by his cast all evening long, and in this first play, Carson Elrod as Bill and Liv Rooth as Betty masterfully handle the quick change in expression and tone that each response requires. It’s like watching a speeded up film, often rewinding itself, and each rewind finds the actors adapting to suitably match the new response. Confused? You won’t be once you’ve seen these two making every gesture hilariously clear.
With only seconds in which to change, Elrod and Rooth appear next as monkeys in a lab where we find them joined by Matthew Saldivar in an experiment in which some invisible scientists are checking out whether or not monkeys, if left on their own with typewriters, could have eventually written Hamlet. An odd premise for a play? I warned you that David Ives is imaginative and skillful, so you won’t find him offering us plays set in living rooms with sitcom family problems to solve. In this one, called simply Words, Words, Words, Saldivar, Elrod and Rooth continue to delight with their willingness to get down and dirty, to leave inhibition in the wings and let fly all sorts of comical gestures to turn us all into happy children at the zoo.
In front of our eyes, the actors whisk this prop off, and that one on, and in a flash we are into a classroom into which a young woman comes to answer an ad claiming to teach The Universal Language, something its professor calls “Unamunda.” Here is a riotous farce that posits that language is completely relative. The play begins slowly, as the student is introduced to the concept with phrases like “Velcro! Bell jar. Froyling! Harvardyu?’ which translate into “Welcome. Good day, Miss. How are you?” As things speed up, you will find yourself catching on and catching up until you almost believe you understand everything being thrown at you. If you’re not entirely convinced, it will be because you’ve been too busy laughing to catch all the hints tossed out. When the play is over, there’s an intermission, which will give you a chance to catch your breath.
The second half is equally dazzling. It starts with a spoof of the composer Philip Glass and his opera Einstein On the Beach. Repetition is key to the language Ives uses in this play, Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, much as it is in Glass’ music for his opera. There are no musicians in the play; but the actors’ words are twisted and turned to meld into other words and before you know it, you have a non-musical word opera, a very good one.
The Philadelphia follows and once again Carson Elrod and Matthew Saldivar, now joined by an equally comedic Jenn Harris, find themselves in a very peculiar region, as in the title. This is not to be confused with The Cleveland or The Pittsburg and that’s all I’m going to tell you except this master of the art of writing 15 minute plays is at the top of his form once again.
The coda is called Variations on the Death of Trotsky. All you need know is that it pays homage to the fact that the Stalin regime did indeed dispatch Trotsky by having a hatchet imbedded in his skull; the rest is the truth according to David Ives, and I can promise you won’t feel you’ve seen this play before.
As much as this evening belongs to its highly original playwright, I must add that, under John Rando’s tightly controlled staging of all six of these comedies, full credit must go to the quintet of actors who’ve been gathered to breathe life into them. Material rarely comes along these days that requires the lunacy of farce playing so only now and then do we have the opportunity to watch it by an ensemble of actors who never step over the line into the bad kind of silliness.
This is one of those ensembles worth watching. Primary Stages has a gem on its hands — once again.
All in the Timing in onstage through March 17, 2013 at 59E59 Street Theaters, 59 East 59th St, NYC. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, who, in his more than 60 year career on Broadway as a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has recently written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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