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Ding Dong the Sketch Is Dead


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All in the Timing

Northlight Theatre, at the Organic Theater Company

Henry thinks he has a sense of humor, but what he has is a joke reflex.

--Charlotte in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing

David Ives is a clockwork playwright. He's fond of bells. They go "ding" in his plays for dramatic effect. He is enamored of clocks. They go "ticktock, ticktock" between his scenes. Like Philip Glass, he is more mechanic than artist. His words ignite his jokes, which lubricate the motors of his plots.

Ives is quite clever when he mocks composer-hypnotist Glass, as he does in one of the six short plays that make up All in the Timing, but his writing technique is not all that different from the approach taken by this occasionally brilliant but migraine-inducing composer of dizzyingly repetitious music. Like Glass, whose minimal variations make Gandhi's life indistinguishable from that of a Texas death-row inmate or a mythical character in a Cocteau film, Ives employs rote systems of cadences, whether of jokes or motifs, that render the plight of a Russian revolutionary indistinguishable from that of a pair of New Yorkers on a first date.

As the title suggests, Ives may believe the secret to comedy is "all in the timing," but without the dramatic imagination and acting to match his pure mechanical skill, his admittedly virtuosic plays wind up as little more than witty one-liners or concepts for Punch or New Yorker cartoons. When Ives bothers to develop characters and plots and the actors in Northlight Theatre's production are up to them, he's brilliant. When he doesn't, one might well be inclined to look at one's watch and wait for the dings and ticktocks signaling Ives's next offering.

The first sketch is basically a cute one-liner, but the dialogue is so crisp that the sitcom cliches seem surprisingly fresh. In "The Sure Thing," a young man and woman's first awkward meeting is interrupted frequently by an offstage bell, which allows the young man to try a new pickup line that might yield a new and better result. It's a kind of sophomoric rip-off of Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges (now a French film, Smoking/No Smoking), in which each small action triggers a series of different outcomes. But when "The Sure Thing" is done cleanly and exuberantly, as it was by Strawdog Theatre a couple of seasons back, it can be a scream. Performed here by Jimmy Ortlieb and Kate Young, who seem a bit too old and stiff for the airy, youthful wit, it seems forced and falls flat. Bong!

"Words, Words, Words," which gives us the proverbial monkeys trying to bang out Hamlet on typewriters, is little more than a famous Punch cover literalized. ("Well, it's the complete works of Shakespeare all right, but the pig's saying he wrote it!") If this were Second City, we'd see the three monkeys onstage, they'd rip off a joke, and there'd be a blackout. But Ives tries to wring some existential profundity out of the monkeys' predicament with some rambling dialogue and lame scatological jokes, and the sketch grinds to a halt. Bong!

More than any of his other pieces here, "The Universal Language" reveals Ives's true talent and potential. A shy, stuttering young woman overcomes her disability with the help of a charlatan language teacher, who instructs her in a wonderfully absurd new language called "Unamunda." Brilliantly concocted by Ives as a pastiche of French, German, English, Spanish, and the names of pop celebrities and consumer products, it is so ingenious it's scary. And the way he develops the relationships of the main characters (superbly played by Kristen Swanson and Joe Dempsey) using this gibberish is nothing short of astounding. Ding, ding, ding!

"Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" sounds just like what it is. Played out ad nauseam in a New York bakery, it mirrors the style of a Glass opera scene. Clever rather than brilliant, it sure sounds more like a one-panel cartoon than a play, but it's witty enough to be diverting, and composer Frank Schiro's revved-up takeoff on Glass's music is a hoot. Ding!

"The Philadelphia" and "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," the final two sketches, reveal glimmers of wit but soon fade into repetition. Set in a diner, "The Philadelphia" posits that all moods and situations can be described in terms of different cities; funny but ultimately pointless and smug, this piece smacks of Seinfeld. To the two male customers and a snippy waitress, to be "in a Philadelphia" is to be in a situation where nothing goes right, while to be "in a Los Angeles" means everything is cool and mellow. Ives's sketch peters out, however, because he seems to be mired "in a New York"--a strange abyss where one thinks himself so clever that he doesn't have to fully construct characters or plot. Bong!

Regrettably, Ives's last sketch is also his weakest. As in "The Sure Thing," an offstage bell triggers different outcomes from a single proposition: What would Leon Trotsky have done differently if he knew when he was going to die? The bell's dings, so cute in the first sketch, are just tedious here. And Ives's reliance on broad physical humor and easy laughs (an ax sticking out of Trotsky's head, for example) instead of verbal wit suggests that the author himself is tiring of his own repetitions. Bong.

The relative feebleness of "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," All in the Timing's final 15 minutes, leaves one wondering if Ives has any clever ideas or verbal wizardry left. The jury is out, and the clock is ticking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Suellen Fitzsimmons.

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