David Ives’ “All in the Timing,” six clever blackout sketches greeted last year as the Second Coming and still running Off Broadway, were nothing if not promising; the question was, how would this obviously gifted writer make good on that promise? The answer is — and isn’t –“Don Juan in Chicago.” It is, because it’s a real full-length play. But it isn’t, because apparently much of it was written before “All in the Timing,” a fact that goes a long way to explain why, despite a classy production, this new old play is such a disappointment.
Ives here merges two stories, that of the fabled Sevillian seducer with that of the Faust legend. The play opens in a study at the palace of the naive Don Juan (Simon Brooking) in 1599, where he is trying to conjure the devil despite the fussy imprecations of his randy servant, Leporello (Larry Block).
When Mephistopheles (Peter Bartlett) appears, he’s effete and emphysematous, hardly the standard goateed version. In exchange for eternal youth, under the terms of their deal, Don Juan must bed a different woman every day by midnight.
He starts with the adoring Donna Elvira (J. Smith Cameron), who later strikes her own deal in order to pursue Don Juan through the ages. Oh, and Leporello is part of the Don’s arrangement, too, presumably because good help was and always will be hard to find.
Cut to modern-day Chicago, where four centuries of serial lovemaking have worn Don Juan — now Don Johnson — to a frazzle. The hours he thought he would have to contemplate the mysteries of the universe have, instead, been squandered on trapping each day’s prey, with the increasingly frantic Leporello — now Lefty — nagging Don to “walk the shlong, baby” as the midnight hour approaches.
Elvira, decked out as a sultry temptress, appears at their seamy digs; so do Sandy (Nancy Opel), a bar pickup so fuzzy she can’t remember whether her name is Sandy or Wendy; and Zoey (Dina Spybey), the virginal young g.f. of a bothersome neighbor (Mark Setlock).
Don quickly sees through Elvira’s disguise, and Sandy turns out to be someone he scored with 20 years ago, ruling her out, too, and leaving sweet Zoey — until it’s revealed that she is the product of that long-ago union with Sandy/Wendy.
When Don Juan discovers that he really loves Elvira, Mephistopheles shows up in time to let them all off the hook.
This probably sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is. Much of the play is written in rhyming couplets, which results in more than 2 1/2 hours of egregious punning and terrible rhymes –“Mozart” with “Moss Hart,””get your nozzle off” with “mazel tov,” and the like. Some of it is clever, but most is sophomoric at best, and at any rate, a little goes a very long way.
Nevertheless, it’s put over by a most appealing cast under the direction of Robert Stanton, a star of “All in the Timing.” Block, in particular, is a master at this kind of character, really letting it rip during a speech in which Lefty lays into Don Johnson for letting his weltschmerz jeopardize their lives.
Smith-Cameron and Opel are also fine, but the standout among the women is Spybey, who’s endearing as the guileless Zoey.
Bob Phillips’ Tudor-ish set is serviceable, as is Deborah Constantine’s somber lighting. Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costumes have their customary flair, and there are some evocative Mozartean flourishes from composer David Van Tieghem.
So Ives remains a clever, promising writer to watch, still too bent on verbal showmanship. “Don Juan in Chicago” is all surface, and when, in the end, Ives has written his characters into a corner, he’s at a loss for a convincing place to go.
Thus the devil becomes God, or at least the god-out-of-the-machine, to tidy things up. Laughs or no laughs, the payoff is as unsatisfying as everything that has gone before it.