Sketch writer David Ives says, “When I go to the theater I want to see something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I don’t want the movies, I don’t want TV.” Yet the first thing that springs to mind as Ives’ zany “Lives of the Saints” takes to the Berkshire Theater Festival main stage is classic TV — “The Carol Burnett Show” to be precise. Ives’ latest collection of comedy skits shares that beloved series’ delight in skewering mores and morals, relishing funny accents and costumes, and generally wreaking anarchic, comedic mayhem.
There’s more than a little of the movies’ Marx brothers in them, too. If they were consistently up to such standards, they would be welcome indeed. In fact, they are intermittently hilarious — intermittently being the operative word.
And the title sketch is so weak that it should be deep-sixed immediately. “Lives of the Saints” is unlikely to repeat the success of Ives’ 1994 collection of playlets “All in the Timing.” Maybe it’s time to try a full-length play.
First produced by the Philadelphia Theater Co. in January, “Lives of the Saints” has opened in Stockbridge with two of its original skits dropped and a new one added (a second new skit, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” had been announced but also was dropped).
It has come to the Berkshire with most of its Philadelphia creative team, including director John Rando, set, lighting and sound designers Russell Metheny , Robert Wierzel and Jim van Bergen, respectively, and cast members Arnie Burton , Anne O’Sullivan, Nancy Opel and Danton Stone. Stephen DeRosa is new to the cast, and costume designers Jonathan C. Bixby and Gregory A. Gale are new, too.
There’s little to complain about with the contributions of any of the above.
Metheny’s basic art deco setting is chic and allows for quick changes between skits as it goes through an array of color transformations under Wierzel’s rainbow lighting. Rando’s direction is buoyant and drolly tongue-in-cheek. And the performances are, when Ives’ material is at its best, often richly ribald.
Ives loves puns, anachronisms and crazy accents. In the opening skit, “Babel’s in Arms,” there’s a running gag about whether its pronounced “baybel” or “babble,” which leads to the Gershwins’ lyric “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
Elsewhere the use of an embryo lever by an ancient artisan hired to build the Tower of Babel prompts that well-known Hammerstein lyric, “Hello young levers wherever you are.”
The new skit, “The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage,” comes next, prefaced by the music from British TV’s “Sherlock Holmes” series. In it, Ives mercilessly spoofs upper-class British twits and mystery conventions. Everyone onstage has slept with everyone else, man or woman. The corpse (a deliciously overripe DeRosa) turns out to have been not only bisexual, but trisexual, eagerly copulating with sofa and rug when there’s nothing more animate handy. Burton is particularly amusing here and elsewhere with his epicene accents.
“Enigma Variations” takes to psychiatry with a double-patient visiting a double-psychiatrist in risible doppelganger fashion. A very butch nurse, Fifi, played utterly masculine by hairy-legged Stone, completes the scene. As is true of some of the other skits, this one goes on for longer than it can support.
Then comes “Soap Opera,” a spoof of the Maytag washing machine commercials and their lonely repairman. Once again inanimate objects — a washing machine and a telephone — are the objects of sexual desire. Here, Opel is vastly entertaining as the machine (she’s actually inside one), a role that has Carol Burnett written all over it.
Ives sometimes refers back to previous skits as the evening proceeds, and even makes a reference to a previous BTF production this season, “Moby Dick.”
Anticlimactically, the evening ends with the impoverished “Lives of the Saints or Polish Joke.” Indeed, it’s not much more than that, as two Polish menials cook food for a funeral breakfast in a church basement.
As they do so, a Polish joke is posited: What is written on the bottom of Polish Coca-Cola bottles? That’s about it. Ives’ inspiration has run dry and the cast is left stranded.
Overall, “Lives of the Saints,” though prompting some laughter, is slim pickings.