Sketch Marks

All in the Timing, a collection of six short one-acts now being staged by Actors Theatre of Phoenix, exploded off-Broadway a couple of seasons ago. It snagged a spot on Time magazine's 1995 "Ten Best" list and made an overnight star of its author, David Ives. Critics heaped praise on the material and the playwright, whom they repeatedly compared to Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. While I very much like some of Ives' material, I'm reminded more of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live than I am of famous European playwrights.

Ives' writing is rich with comedy and literary references, and concerns itself with communication and its effect on love and mortality. Each playlet here celebrates the texture and sound of words as much as their impact on the characters, and the tenor throughout tends to be more sweet than cynical.

Things start out brightly enough with Sure Thing, in which a man and a woman who meet in a coffee house are allowed to take back their conversational faux pas. Each time one of them says something stupid, an offstage bell rings and the dialogue backtracks a bit. The same sense of absurdist comedy prevails in Words, Words, Words, about a trio of chimps in a Columbia University experiment who are asked to prove that theory about three monkeys with typewriters eventually coming up with Hamlet. And in Variations on the Death of Trotsky, the exiled Bolshevik himself considers the possibilities of his life and death, while a mountain climber's ax (the implement of his murder) protrudes from his skull.

These three pieces go a long way toward explaining the critical accolades with which Ives has been met. They fuse sublime silliness with rather lofty philosophies, and more than make up for the pair of stink bombs they're coupled with.

In The Universal Language, a woman attempts to learn Unamunda, a ridiculous rendering of Esperanto that combines commercial names with foreign phrases. The scene quickly degenerates into silly musical nonsense that had me hoping for a quick wind-up. Unfortunately, it didn't come soon enough, as with The Philadelphia, where a man is trapped in an alternative reality from which I wanted to escape more than the character did. (I wonder if Philadelphians mind the playwright's analogy as much as I, having been born in Ohio, mind Ives comparing Cleveland to "death without the advantages.")

When he isn't attempting to put these two convoluted sketches across, director Matthew Wiener handles the material with grace and a keen eye for physical comedy. (His set changes--handled by men in white decontamination suits--are particularly amusing.) But in the case of Philadelphia and Language, he allows his enormously talented cast to overact, making a further mess of Ives' dense text.

In the remaining one-acts, Linda DeArmond and Matthew Mazuroski play, as the saying goes, everything from giants to children. Why DeArmond doesn't work more often is a puzzler. She is both touching and amusing in the pickup scene in Sure Thing, where she provides the perfect foil for Mazuroski's shy wit. And Jared Sakren makes a marvelous Trotsky, though he's mostly wasted in his other scenes.

I was sorry that, in this production, a piece with a promising title, Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, was deleted. In its place, the brief English Made Simple, about what people say and what they really mean, displays the intellectual tomfoolery that Ives does best.

A couple of years ago, Ives told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he "goes to the theatre to cry or laugh a lot, and if I don't get that, I've wasted my money." Note to David Ives: Thanks to several of your sketches and some solid acting, the Phoenix premiere of All in the Timing is worth nearly every penny.

--Robrt L. Pela

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of All in the Timing continues through Sunday, November 3, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela