All in the timing, indeed: David Ives’ six witty one-acts have won over-the-top praise and a likely commercial Off Broadway transfer for a series of extended blackout sketches that revel in university humor, but owe a lot to better writers and even more to an appealing ensemble. To take nothing away from an emerging talent, the response prompted by “All in the Timing” suggests just how desperate things are in the theater.
That’s not to say Ives’ concerns are slight. Though the evening unfolds in barely two hours, including intermission, the six plays are linked by a love of words and a playful but keen sense of the way language opens up or closes off worlds of emotion between people. And they do so with plenty of laugh lines, even if, more often than not, the plays overstay their welcome.
In “The Sure Thing,” a man (Robert Stanton) tries to pick up a woman (Nancy Opel) in a cafe. As a bell goes off, they keep replaying the encounter, varying their lines, until they get it right. Like the sweet film “Groundhog Day,””The Sure Thing” ultimately sells out to an easy sentimentalism.
“Words, Words, Words” grows tiresome even more quickly. A riff on the theory that a monkey will eventually produce “Hamlet” given a typewriter and enough time, the scene features three caged chimps — an unseen, all-seeing researcher has named them Swift (Stanton), Kafka (Opel) and Milton (Michael Countryman) — banging away at typewriters and chattering away about poetry, politics and existence. Indeed, they touch on almost everything but “Hamlet”– until an ending suggesting, again, that the playwright had no ending, had nothing, really , more than the joke.
A similar problem runs through “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” a”Forbidden Broadway”-style parody of the composer that owes as much to Robert Wilson as to Glass (though the Glassian version of “Chopsticks” is memorable); “The Philadelphia,” about how our emotional states alter reality (a Philadelphia is when you get nothing that you want; a Cleveland is “like death without the advantages”); and “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” featuring Trotsky (the inimitable and hilarious Countryman) in Mexico with a pickax in his skull, seemingly inspired by Ives’ rumination on how Trotsky managed to survive 24 hours after the gruesome attack that killed him.
Sentiment doesn’t manage to wreck “The Universal Language,” the evening’s best work and its only premiere. Dawn (Wendy Lawless), a sweet young woman with a stutter, enters a classroom where she wants to learn a universal language called Unamundo, the scam construct of Don (Stanton), a philological charlatan right out of Ionesco’s “The Lesson.”
This pseudo-Esperanto –“John Cleese” means “English” and stutter translates as “tongue-Stoppard”– gets loopier and loopier as Dawn takes to the lingo, loses her impediment and becomes Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins. The linguistic challenge to the actors is astonishing, and they pull it off with hilarious and ultimately moving glee.
The plays are directed with an unerring comic sense by Jason McConnell Buzas, and performed by a cast that consistently delights. Design elements are spare — this is, after all, Off Off — but respectable, but even more impressive is the occasional music, some of it original (composed by Bruce Coughlin) and the rest chosen with a great sense of humor.
Can Ives write an actual play, or is he six jokes in search of a sitcom contract? For in truth, it’s not all in the timing; even the dorm cutup wears out his welcome after a while. Now that he has our ear, Ives has a rare opportunity to prove his mettle, and some of us will be listening to see what he next makes of his gifts.