It’s easy to see why “All in the Timing,” David Ives’ collection of comic confections, has been a hit with audiences pretty much everywhere (a few years back it was the most produced play in America, Bard aside). Their loony humor is easily accessible, but they’re also sprinkled with highbrow references that give the illusion of weightiness. You get to feel clever as you’re watching actors scratch their crotches impersonating chimps, because the gag is based on a philosophical conceit; and the guy wandering around with a pickax stuck in his head isn’t just a guy — he’s Trotsky. Ives’ distinctive brand of humor might be called intellectual comedy for the non-intellectual, or is it non-intellectual comedy for the intellectual? Ives could probably work up a routine to argue the distinction.
The last entry in the Geffen Playhouse’s second full season, Ives’ set of six short plays has been charmingly mounted by John Rando on a beautiful, vaguely deco wood-and-glass set designed by Russell Metheny. The bright and flexible young cast of five features familiar faces Clea Lewis, late of “Ellen,” and Kimberly Williams, star of the “Father of the Bride” pictures. They and a trio of male cohorts bring great energy to Ives’ comedy of ideas, but they can’t always make up for the thinness of the conceits.
Williams and the elastically featured Arnie Burton are teamed in the first and finest sketch, “Sure Thing,” in which a man and woman meet over an empty chair in a coffeehouse and exchange an endlessly replayed and rewritten series of casual pleasantries as their romantic destinies hang in the balance.
A bell rings each time the chance of a union is thwarted: “What are you reading?” “‘The Sound and the Fury.'” “Oh, I love Hemingway.” Ding! And the conversation starts over. It’s a lovely riff on the million ways we can fail to hook up with a potential mate and how we use the most basic and perfunctory exchanges to determine our romantic fates. And both Williams and Burton bring a variety of comic styles — from winsome to brazen to sentimental — to bear on Ives’ cleverly spliced and diced dialogue.
In “Words, Words, Words,” Ives spins a fantasy from the mathematical notion — propounded by some professor somewhere — that a trio of chimps typing randomly would eventually crank out “Hamlet.” Ives makes his chimps (Lewis, Burton and Tom McGowan, playing Kafka, Swift and Milton) a trio of kvetching, self-aware hacks. When they’re not wolfing down bananas or swinging on a tire beatifically, they’re grouchily trying to churn out the play: “The sooner we produce this thing, the sooner we get outta here!” It’s a cute gag, but there isn’t anywhere for it to go — it turns into a series of goofy riffs on the one joke.
The same problem plagues “The Universal Language,” wherein a mousy, stuttering young woman (Williams) seeks to learn the tongue of the title from an oddball professor (Burton). Ives’ new language, “Unamunda,” is a cleverly pureed mixture of pop culture, English and a few other romance languages. “No crayola” means “I don’t believe it,” for example, and “English” is translated as “John Cleese.” Word processor is “verboblendo.”
As the timid Dawn catches on, so does the audience, but the humor in the play isn’t so much developed as repeated: All the laughs derive from the silly translations and the use of recognizable words and names in nonsensical, yet comprehensible ways. It’s funny for five minutes, but not for 20, and the touch of poignance Ives throws in is cloying in a manner that the playwright gracefully avoided in the opening sketch. (It might have helped if Lewis, a distinctive character actress who’s underused here, had played the student instead of Williams, an ingenue type who’s too pretty and poised to be believable as the awkward Dawn.)
The second act opens with a sendup of Philip Glass’ repetitive, abstruse style, which could stand in for any number of higher-brow artistic endeavors. (“Do you understand this?” an actor asked an audience member, who presumably replied in the negative. “Neither do we!”) Yet it, too, goes on longer than necessary. Unhappily for a collection called “All in the Timing,” Ives often tries to stretch his notions to the point of comic delirium and ends up near tedium. Truth to tell, audiences don’t seem to mind — or even notice. They’re too busy laughing at Trotsky, wandering around with that ax in his head.