Friday, February 27, 2015

Off-Broadway Review—"Lives of the Saints"

Lives of the Saints
Written by David Ives; directed by John Rando
Performances through March 27, 2015
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Rooth, Ellrod and Hutchinson in Life Signs, from
David Ives' Lives of the Saints (photo: James Leynse)
In Lives of the Saints, David Ives again shows off his mastery of the deceptively difficult short-play form. As in his earlier All in the Timing, what Ives does in his brief one-acts other playwrights can't do in 90 minutes or two-plus hours of stage time: the ability, in just a few fleet scenes, to create a world inhabited by realism and absurdism, and characters we laugh with, or at, or both. That Ives often pulls all of this off simultaneously is nothing short of astounding.

Lives of the Saints comprises six short plays, each funny and intelligent on its own, but with the cumulative effect of hilariously supple writing making the whole more substantial than the sum of its parts. The opener, The Goodness of Your Heart, which pits neighbors against each other over the "gift" of a widescreen televsion, takes perfect aim at the current annoyance of those self-entitled dopes who think that the world is theirs alone. Soap Opera is a farcical dismantling of that longtime afternoon TV scourge, has a Maytag repairman in love with his washing machine. A doctor's office is the setting for Enigma Variations, as "Mrs. Dopplegangler" (two of them) complains to Dr. Bill (two of them) that her life is filled with deja vu.

The second act comprises more delectable one-acts. The excruciatingly funny Life Signs, in which a just-dead Park Avenue matriarch begins to prattle on in front of her grieving son and Southern Belle wife, confessing her own (and her daughter in law's) hidden sexual indiscretions, is followed by It's All Good, an ingeniously conceived short about a successful New York writer returning to his old Chicago neighbrohood, where he meets himself as he would have been if he hadn't left. The final sketch, Lives of the Saints, sympathetically shows two chatty middle-aged Polish ladies preparing a funeral breakfast in their local church basement.

Ives' masterly writing zeroes in on everyday lives, thanks to the playwright's innate sense of comic irony and absurdism, which also includes a goodly amount of belly laughs. The alternating digs of disagreeing friends in Goodness, the laundry list of washing machine puns in Soap Opera, the loony confessions of a cadaver in Life Signs: Ives can mine humor and humanity in any situation. And even when brilliant ideas falter—the doubling down of the antics of Enigma, the non-ending to It's All Good, the introduction of actors providing kitchen sound effects for the ladies in Saints—there's always something else to take their place.

On Beowulf Boritt's crafty stage designs, director John Rando has a shrewdly loose leash on his talented cast: of this superlative quintet, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth are first-rate, while Arnie Burton and Carson Ellrod go even further, with a winning repertoire of voices, accents and facial expressions and inflections that change in the blink of an eye.

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