by Ron Cohen · February 25, 2015
With All in the Timing, some two decades ago, David Ives distinguished himself as a master of the short-form comic play. Since then, he has expanded his reputation with some formidable full-length works -- most notably, the oft-produced Venus in Fur. Now, in Lives of the Saints, Ives is again regaling us with a collection of six short pieces, three of them relatively fresh out of his computer, and happily he’s writing at the top of his game.
The plays are being given a highly appreciative production by Primary Stages, the seventh time this company has mounted Ives’ work. Of course, the pieces are loaded with the linguistic agility and wit that are among Ives’ trademarks. But some of them also resonate with a subtly compelling exploration of facets of the human condition, deepened by a masterful use of the surreal and suggestions of alternate realities.
I was particularly taken by two of the new pieces: It’s All Good and Life Signs. In the former, a celebrated novelist travels from his life in New York to his hometown of Chicago to be honored as a “literary luminary,” While there, he pays a visit to his old neighborhood and on the way meets a fellow who turns out to be himself, or more precisely, the man he would have been had he never left Chicago. It’s a strange and provocative encounter, vibrating with the ambiguities that can cloud any contemplation of the road not taken. And it makes for a seriously haunting piece of tightly written playwriting.
In contrast, Life Signs is unabashedly funny, as a mother, who has just died, begins to speak and fills her grieving son in on things about her life that he would have never suspected. There’s a lot of good-natured, laugh-getting smutty stuff, but the play also intimates how we may never really know people who are close to us, suggesting that maybe we’re better off that way. Or are we?
These two plays are both in the second half of the evening, which concludes with a piece that has been performed earlier in New York and carries the title of the overall show. In it, two widowed church ladies prepare a funeral breakfast. It’s performed without props, with other actors providing sound effects, as the ladies stir pots, turn on faucets and go through various other kitchen chores. It gives the piece an air of unreality, heightening the quaintly saintliness of the good women as they prepare a bountiful meal even in the face of mortality. It provides a sweetly poignant conclusion.
The evening begins with a new piece entitled The Goodness of Your Heart, in which a philosophical exploration of the meaning of friendship is smartly contained in an amusing naturalistic ambience. Two pals sit in the backyard drinking beer and eventually begin to debate why one of them should or should not buy the other a new television set. It leads to some highly entertaining reactions and reasonings.
In Soap Opera, a washing machine repairman (obviously inspired by the Maytag washing machine commercials in which a repairman bemoans how lonely he is because the machine in question never breaks down) tells us of his love for a particular machine and how it has taken over his life. And who would have thought so many jokes could be derived from washing machine terminology?
Winding up the show’s first half is Enigma Variations, in which a patient relates to a psychiatrist the feeling that she has a doppelgänger. Indeed she has, it’s even there sitting next to her in the doctor’s office, complete with synchronized movements. The funny part is that the doctor, too, has a doppelgänger, and as a matter of fact, so does time itself as the conversation moves into a contemplation of déjà vu.
The evening has been staged in high style by director John Rando, a frequent Ives collaborator. My one big complaint is that he sometimes let the proceedings become too antic, causing me to lose some of the inspired linguistic lunacy in Ives’ dialogue.
However, the company’s five actors -- Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth -- deserve nothing but high commendation for the conviction and versatility they bring to a wide assortment of characters. They also work together splendidly in some tricky choreographed movement. Together with the beautifully rampant imaginings of author Ives, they help make this telling of the Lives of the Saints pretty much a blessed event.
Photo: Liv Rooth, Carson Elrod | James Leynse