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In “Lives of the Saints,” David Ives has gone from Venus in Furs to Polish Church Ladies in Housedresses. Those dear old things show up in the title piece, which ends this evening of one-acts on a heart-tugging note that’s a surprising departure from the tongue-twisting brain teasers on the rest of the bill.

Edna (Kelly Hutchinson) and Flo (Liv Booth), the perfectly named ladies in question, are wonderful specimens of those living saints who quietly, selflessly, and anonymously donate themselves to a cause (church, political party, family holidays) and run the whole show behind the scenes. We meet these two unsung sweeties in the basement of a Chicago church, where a funeral Mass is being said where they are setting up the collation meal to sustain the mourners when they return from the cemetery.

The stage is bare and there are no props in sight, just the two superbly well-matched actors, miming every step of the preparations for the elaborate funeral breakfast.  Invisible stagehands provide all the sound effects as the friends go through what is obviously an old ritual. Flo has the candles, Edna has the St. Stanislaus Kostka doilies, and together they set the table. Now comes the food. Bustling between the stove, the refrigerator, the table and a sideboard (all unseen), they prepare the jello molds, assemble the salads, put out the Polish ham, the kielbasa, and a bakery truck worth of desserts.

Ives writes with deep affection for these unassuming women, whose regional accents and vocal cadences speak of the sweet and silly comforts of home. “O, the things that Mary has been through,” says Edna. “O, the tragedy in the Nowicki family,” says Flo. You have to laugh — or cry — at these saints, who are properly rewarded at the end of this perfect piece.

The same nostalgic tone softens the emotional blows in “It’s All Good.” Stephen Rivers, the New York “literary luminary” played so sympathetically by Rick Holmes, returns to Chicago to give a lecture and takes a detour to the old neighborhood. Here he runs into Steve (the sainted Carson Elrod), an alternate version of the person he might have become had he stayed home, taken an editorial job with a small religious press, married his old girlfriend, and raised a nice, big, Catholic family. Technically, this short play is a clever application of the “alternate universe” theme that excites the scribe’s imagination. But there’s a bittersweet tone at play here that takes the material beyond itself and into deeper emotional territory.

“Life Signs,” the third play in the strong second act, is a delightful fantasy about the power of words. Along with his wife and the family doctor, Toby Skinner (Elrod) is keeping the deathwatch at his mother’s bedside. When Helen Skinner (Hutchinson, priceless) gives up the ghost, her son quite naturally expresses the wish that his reserved parent had spoken more candidly about her life, her thoughts, her feelings. Well, be careful what you wish for, because Ives hears Toby’s wish and grants it with comic vengeance.

There’s a unity of tone to the entire production, for which helmer John Rando — who also directed “All In the Timing,” the playwright’s first, much acclaimed anthology of short plays — deserves full credit.  Sets (Beowulf Boritt), costumes (Anita Yavich) and lighting (Jason Lyons) are uniformly light, bright, and warm. Nonetheless, the first act, which is entirely given over to tricky wordplay, is a disappointment. All good ideas, to be sure, but so overworked they strangle the comic conceit.

The only fully successful entry in this act is “Soap Opera,” a grand display of Ives’s facility with language and his innate sense of comic absurdity. Again, it’s about the transformative power of words and the pure fun of manipulating them.

The situation is a hoot. Elrod plays that famous Maypole washing machine repairman who has nothing to do, because his machines are so perfect. Ives pushes the conceit to its logical comic conclusion: the machine is an actual woman (deliciously played by Liv Rooth) and the repairman is so in love with her that he takes her out to dinner at a fancy French restaurant. (Arnie Burton is the hilariously snooty maitre d’) But the humor transcends the initial situation and becomes a riotous display of “soapy” words and phrases, the cornier the funnier.

Overall, the show is a mixed bag, but still catnip for anyone who appreciates the wizardry of this amazing wordsmith.

Off Broadway Review: ‘Lives of the Saints’ by David Ives

The Duke on 42nd Street; 199 seats; $70 top. Opened Feb. 24, 2015. Reviewed Feb. 18. Running time: <strong>TWO HOURS</strong>.

  • Production: A Primary Stages presentation, in association with Jamie deRoy and Barry Feirstein, of a play in two acts by David Ives.
  • Crew: Directed by John Rando. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound & original music, John Gromada; wigs, Tom Watson; production stage manager, Robbie Kyle Peters.
  • Cast: Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson, Liv Rooth.