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A CurtainUp Review
Lives of the Saints
By Elyse Sommer
It's always fun to spend an evening with a half dozen of David Ives' often surreal and always linguistically witty playlets. Maybe that's why director John Rando has so often jumped on the director's podium, and Ives himself has added to his more than a dozen strong collection even though he's been busy collecting accolades for his adaptations Encores! concert series and his updates of Moliere's School for Lies and Sacher-Masoch's novella Venus In Fur.
Just two years ago, Primary Stages celebrated its 20-year championship of these little gems about life and words, with an anniversary edition called All In The Timing. Now the company is back with Lives of the Saints.
All In The Timing was a newly staged visit with six favorite old friends like the devilishly funny The Universal Language, Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, The Philadelphia and Variations on the Death of Trotsky. Lives of the Saints is a something old/something new sequel to that production. It features three golden oldies (Soap Opera, Enigma Variations and Life of the Saints) and three world premieres (The Goodness of Your Heart, Life Signs, It's All Good).
Besides Director Rando to insure that the tricky timing and segues from realistic to surrealistic that call for hair trigger costume and wig changes, four of the actors from All In the Timing and most of the designers are back on board at the company's new home The Duke on 42nd Street.
The two new playlets that begin each act are relatively realistic — well, realistic given the playwright's penchant for absurdist humor. (Note that one play listed in the program has been cut and the other 3 plays listed in the Playbill have been rearranged per the order shown in the production notes below.
The Goodness of Your Heart, is a two character curtain raiser about a friendship put to the test by one friend's (Rick Holmes) rather unrealistic request for his friend and neighbor (Burton) to gift him with a $900 television set. Holmes's Marsh is not only persuasive, but amusingly ungrateful (seems Burton's Del should have gift wrapped that TV).
From this exploration of friendship stretched to its limits, it's on to Soap-Opera which illustrates one of Mr. Ives' favorite devices, the use of anthropomorphic story-telling. All five actors are aboard for this bizarre saga of a washing machine repairman (Carson Elrod), with the "Maypole" washing machine (Liv Rooth) who is more perfect than any real woman could ever be. Other characters in this objectification romance include the Maitre D' (Arnie Burton) at a fancy restaurant, his mother and gum chewing teen-aged girl friend Mabel (both played by Kelly Hutchinson) and a friend (Rick Holmes).
The first act ends testing the cast's incredible timing via two pairs of hilarious doppelgängers— Doctor Bill 1 (Arnie Burton) and Bill 2 (Rick Homes) and a matching set of dopplegänger female patients, Bebe 1 (Liv Rooth) and Bebe 2 (Kelly Hutchinson). Everything they do and say comes in twos that must be seen to be believed and appreciated. Here's just a teensy sampling of their LOL exchanges: In response to Bebe 1's "Doctor, can you suggest anything for me?" Bill 1 suggests "Maybe, a double dose of B1 and B2 taken twice every couple of days for two weeks." As for the bill, Bebe requests "Would you send me a bill, Bill?. . . in duplicate."
Both the second act's new middle (It's All Good) and final (Lives of the Saints) pieces, see Ives returning to his Roman Catholic Chicago roots. It's all Good, about a writer who happens to find himself a dinner guest at his long ago sweetheart's home somehow lacks the Ivesian spark. But Life Signs perks with the playwright's detours into the comically outrageous. Who but Ives could make a deathbed scene both ridiculously funny, even as it examines the regrets that accompany us to the grave?
Arnie Burton is a hoot as the doctor whose tactless bedside manner is apparently only surpassed by his sexual prowess. (My wonderful and very sensitive doctor who I spotted in the audience at the performance I attended no doubt got a charge out of Dr. Brinkman as well as the Bills 1 and 2).
The titular finale which is the only one of the older plays that's been performed in New York. It reintroduces us to the saintly Edna and Flo as they prepare a post-funeral church repast of kreplach, kielbasa, cakes and jello molds without an actual pot or pan or utensil in sight. Hutchinson and Roth nail the women's Chicago accents as they accompany their chores with reflections on life and death. The men orchestrate their preparations thus turning it all into a real old-fashioned radio play.
Abetting Mr. Rando in keep keeping things moving fluidly, Beowulf Borritt has, as she did with the 2013 production of All In The Timing, created a deceptively simple set — with walls morphing into entrances and exits for actors and props. Costumer Anita Yavich and Hair and Wig exper Tom Watson abet the actors split second persona changes.
All the within and between acts stage business probably prompted Mr. Rando to eliminate Babes in Arms (though it's still listed in the program). A good thing as the problem with this, like any new Ives assemblage is its inevitable comparison to the superlative All in the Timing.. This latest evening is a worthy younger brother with the original director adding to its strength, even if it doesn't completely equal the original.