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David Ives‘ evening of short comic plays All in the Timing has been a beloved regional theater staple since its acclaimed off-Broadway premiere in 1993. So expectations were high for his newest collection, again being presented by Primary Stages. Unfortunately Lives of the Saints, despite being expertly performed by its five-person ensemble and smoothly directed by John Rando, is a disappointingly disjointed evening that offers far fewer genuine laughs. Featuring six short one-acts — a mixture of older pieces and three world premieres — it represents a disappointment from the playwright, who has achieved great success with his theatrical adaptation of Venus in Fur.
Each of the short works lasts a mere 15 minutes or less, just enough to run their scant ideas into the ground. Unlike All in the Timing, which depended on clever wordplay and ingenious conceits, the pieces here often take on deeper themes. But that doesn’t afford them greater significance.
The problems are immediately apparent with the underwhelming opener The Goodness of Your Heart, in which two friends become at odds over the request by one of them (Rick Holmes) that the other (Arnie Burton) buy him a new big screen TV for no other reason than the title implies. Ostensibly seeking to explore the social complexities of friendship, it fails to live up to its provocative premise.
Soap Opera is at least more lively, telling the story of a washing machine repairman (Carson Elrod) attempting to procure a table at a fancy French restaurant for himself and his new love, a “Maypole” appliance. Initially rebuffed by the haughty, heavily accented maître d (Burton), he proceeds to recount the story of his unusual romance with the machine (inhabited by Liv Rooth).
The tediousness of the situation is only partially alleviated by an endless series of thematically oriented puns. “In my experience everything is a cycle,” the machine declares at one point.
Similar wordplay is put to use in Enigma Variations, in which a woman goes to see a doctor, with both characters represented by identical doppelgangers who act and speak in perfect unison. The profusion of tired double identity-themed jokes — the doctor offers his new patient Doublemint gum, for instance — is not rendered funnier by the presence of a wacky nurse (Elrod, in drag) whose hairy legs are very much on display.
Far funnier, at least for a while, is Life Signs, in which a man (Elrod) is startled to discover that his recently deceased mother (Kelly Hutchinson) is not quite as dead as the doctor (Burton) declares her to be. At first she merely chirps “hello” repeatedly from her deathbed before eventually launching into an uncomfortably frank discussion of her sexual history. “We can’t bury her like that!” the son declares quite reasonably. But as in the other plays, the gag grows increasingly thin.
It’s All Good attempts to strike deeper emotional notes with its depiction of the encounter between a New York-based writer (Holmes) and the friendly stranger (Elrod) who invites him home for dinner after they meet on a train bound for the former’s hometown of Chicago. The stranger’s wife (Rooth) turns out to be the writer’s old girlfriend, with their reunion proving deeply uncomfortable.
The titular piece, the playwright’s self-professed favorite, caps off the evening. But it’s similarly disappointing in its depiction of two church ladies preparing a post-funeral repast. Dependent largely on a meta-theatrical joke that won’t be revealed here, it’s sweetly touching, especially in its denouement, but it too adds up to very little.
Under the inventive direction of Rando (a 2002 Tony winner for Urinetown, currently represented on Broadway with the musical revival On the Town), the performers go through their multifaceted paces with admirable comic precision, frequently scoring laughs despite the thin material. But unfortunately Lives of the Saints doesn’t seem to have been blessed with true inspiration.
Cast: Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson, Liv Rooth
Playwright: David Ives
Director: John Rando
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music & sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Primary Stages
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