Nine comedies in one weekend, and I’m not even sweating. Must be one-act time again. Remember when this abbreviated form was box-office poison? Audiences used to assume that playwrights who couldn’t spin out a tale for an entire evening should be plying their trade on TV, but the three-minute plot lines of music videos have changed all that. Now brevity isn’t merely the soul of wit, it’s the corpus, too.
Happily, the week’s openings establish that this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. The six David Ives comedies that make up Round House Theater’s “All in the Timing” qualify collectively as the funniest show to convulse area audiences in years. And if Ives’ precision-tooled wordplay should happen to strike its audiences as Stoppardian, they can cross the Potomac to sample the real thing in Washington Shakespeare Company’s less consistent but still very funny “An Evening With Tom Stoppard.”
Stoppard’s the more eclectic wit—at least in any given play. Where Ives likes to work an uncommon number of variations on a single theme, Stoppard tends to throw everything into the cauldron at once. In The Real Inspector Hound, which serves as the centerpiece of the WSC evening, he mocks the stiltedness of Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, takes potshots at actorly affectations, pillories critics, and works a few elegant satirical variations on Pirandello, all while punning madly. The story concerns two reviewers who are watching a hilariously ghastly whodunit in which fog rolls in on cue and exposition is spouted every time the phone rings. Moon (Christopher Henley) is a jealous second-stringer who tries to cram all his knowledge of the human condition into every critique since he never knows when he’ll get to write another. Crackling chocolate wrappers in the next seat over is the pontificating Birdboot (David Fendig), who uses his position to conduct affairs with leading ladies. Their comments on the play are priceless, and the hilarity only increases as they find themselves drawn into the onstage action. Aided by adept performances in every role, first-time director Michael Comlish stages the crit-bits gleefully, and orchestrates the deliberately slipshod show-within-the-show so that its comedy escalates deliciously into farce.
The other two pieces—Dirty Linen, which involves a sex scandal in the House of Lords, and The 15 Minute Hamlet, which is precisely what it sounds like—have more modest charms. The curtain-raiser’s riffs on political chicanery, though directed cleverly by Mikel Sarah Lambert, could be cut by a third without hurting the play particularly. Populated by a lot of stuffed shirts and one spectacularly stuffed brassiere, it’s mostly a grab bag of sexual puns and an excuse for Miss Gotobed (Nanna Ingvarsson) to engage in lots of politically incorrect vamping. The actress fares reasonably well later in the evening when she dons a director’s cap to stage the Hamlet condensation, a task she approaches briskly and brightly, if not with as much visual flair as the skit requires. In fairness, the playwright isn’t giving her much help; even at the show’s U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center a decade ago, it was slight to the vanishing point. Still, audiences should be inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt, especially after howling at The Real Inspector Hound.
Forgive me if what follows is incoherent. I was laughing so hard at Ives’ “All in the Timing” that for long stretches I forgot to take notes, and believe me, even with script in hand, reconstructing the evening’s six comic sketches will be no easy trick.
I find, for instance, that to sum up a playlet in which a stuttering young woman learns to speak a “universal” language, I scribbled that she was studying three linguistic tenses: “pasta, prison, and furniture.” That’s what her con-man prof said, sounding rather like Chico Marx as he did so. And since the rest of his invented lingo was equally dependent on context to be decipherable, I’d have to tie myself in knots to explain it in print. For instance, when the prof stuck out his hand and uttered a hearty “velcro,” it was reasonably clear he meant “welcome.” Similarly, his question, “Harvardyu?” obviously called for a reply along the lines of “fine, thanks.” Neither was much of a stretch. But the audience also figured out that “bell jar” meant “good day,” which at the very least required a passing acquaintance with French. And after a while patrons weren’t even having trouble with locutions like “votsdy beesnest bella froyling?” (roughly “what brings you here, pretty lady?”), and even “oop scoopa diddly bop, iago scoopa bop da-wow!,” which had something to do with preferring a bigger book to a smaller one. No way I can explain that in less than three paragraphs.
I’m not sure why merely being able to follow dialogue like this should have an audience falling into the aisles, but at Round House Theater, happily enough, it does. Ditto the skit exploring the hypothesis that three monkeys typing into infinity will sooner or later produce Hamlet. Ives’ publish-or-perish twist is that the three monkeys are anxious to get the job over with but haven’t a clue as to what Hamlet is. Consequently, they’re frenetically producing snatches of Paradise Lost and other literary classics and getting no nearer their goal.
Then there’s the coffee-bar encounter where two would-be daters get to back up Groundhog Day-style whenever a pickup line doesn’t work (which is to say, every three sentences or so). And there’s a sketch that posits a culture-warp where no matter what you ask for, you can’t get it, so you have to learn to ask for its opposite. There’s also a phrase-and-gesture-fragmenting sequence called Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread in which Glass’ casual interaction with a baker and two customers turns gradually into one of the tonal composer’s loopier compositions.
You’ll have noted that in each of his skits Ives tends to work a single linguistic gimmick for all it’s worth. Whether the author is in a Berlitzy mood or a literary one, intent on reducing dialogue to its component sentences, or on shredding those sentences into syllables, he’s forever playing with language. But what sustains the evening is that the games he’s playing are emotionally telling. The stutterer and her teacher are, it turns out, learning a universal language of sorts—the language of love. And the fact that the monkeys type with their toes and pick nits from one another’s scalps while debating how to conjure the Great Dane doesn’t for a moment lessen the existential nature of their dilemma.
Curiously, when Ives devotes himself more directly to emotion, his work becomes less intriguing. Variations on the Death of Trotsky—which allows the assassinated political theorist to catch a glimpse of his own mortality—is amusing mostly because it’s acted by a performer who takes no notice of the mountain-climber’s ax embedded in his skull. There’s an ache at the center of the piece, but somehow, giving the ache a physical manifestation rather than a linguistic one robs it of power. Fortunately, it doesn’t lessen the laughter; it just makes it more skitcom-ish.
Director Nick Olcott’s production is exemplary enough that if it were playing at, say, Church Street Theater, the management could safely take out a two-year lease with options to extend further. Lou Stancari’s blue-green environment with slide-on settings makes Round House’s suburban auditorium look like an upscale off-Broadway house, and the four performers are nothing short of sublime. I especially liked Jason Kravits’ uproarious tire-swinging, knuckle-scraping monkey, Kathryn Kelley’s hauntingly affecting stutterer, and Jane Beard and Marty Lodge as the back-up-and-start-again couple, but they’re no less adept in other roles. The production has already been extended, and if Round House has any sense at all, it’ll run at least through New Year. Take a cue from the title though: Timing is everything, ’cause if you see it quickly enough, you can go back and see it again.