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Getting it right: (l-r) Martin and McDermott in All in the Timing.

Monkey Shines
By James Yeara

All in the Timing

By David Ives, directed by Audrey Looye and Terry Rabine

Home Made Theater, Spa Little Theater, through Feb. 26

David Ives is brilliant. The various compilations of his one-act plays are a treasury of gems. They sparkle, they shine, they gleam, they dazzle, no matter who the jeweler is or what type of setting is selected. His short one-acts usually have absurd scenarios featuring quirky characters who always have a verbal sinuosity that’s the aural equivalent of watching a belly dancer’s navel. His words move, twist, shimmy, shake, and even seem to wink.

But underneath the plays’ surface cynicism and surreal situations beats a hopeful heart; despite a cosmos aligned against them, his characters succeed. The world is absurd, but life triumphs. Theatrical productions usually pick and choose from his two collections: his most recent, Time Flies, had a sterling production titled Lives of the Saint (the title of one of the one-acts) at Berkshire Theatre Festival in 2002. Ives’ earlier collection of 14 one-acts, All in the Timing (a line from the biggest hit of the collection, Sure Thing), is frequently produced by undergraduate theater programs looking to please audiences with Ives’ trenchant, twisting verbal displays.

Home Made Theater’s current production of six one-acts from All in the Timing preserves Ives’ wit despite a clunky set and even more obtuse entr’acte songs that are the antithesis of the plays’ sinuosity; the brilliant “Words, Words, Words,” about three monkeys trying to type Hamlet in a Columbia University experiment (and succeeding by play’s end), is followed by “Hey, hey we’re the Monkees” while the cast and crew move the set pieces around at the direction of a ringmaster intoning bad limericks. The effect is like being served a six-course dinner with a wandering karaoke minstrel singing between each course.

The courses are wonderful despite the bulky, migrating set pieces and numbing soundtrack. Sure Thing is the hit seemingly based on the old improv exercise of making a new choice after a bell rings. Bill (Daniel Martin) tries to pick up Betty (the delightful Kate McDermott) at a Manhattan café but continually fouls up: “Waiting for your boyfriend?” Bill asks. “Sort of,” Betty replies. “What’s a ‘sort of’ boyfriend?” Bill snottily responds. “My lover. Here she comes now,” Betty exclaims—and the bell dings and the scene starts with a new choice. This continues until the pair finally end up married with three children going to “Vassar, Brown, and Harvard.”

The aforementioned Words, Words, Words features strong simian performances by Stephen Davis as the chimp named Swift, Peter Burleigh as the ape Milton, and Winnie Bowen as the rhesus monkey Kafka. Amid a swirl of literary allusions one would expect (given the characters’ names), the three engage in physical simian behavior while bantering about the nature of life, the universe, and everything. So adept were the three—at one point Burleigh carries Davis piggy-back and stops down center to pick up a discarded sheet of text with his toes and regards it in typical editorial fashion—at monkey behavior that I wish that they had thrown dung at the annoying sound design or toppled the sets.

The Universal Language closes out the first half and was the highlight of HMT’s production. The con man Don (a nerdy J.J. Buechner) teaches his made-up language, “Unamunda,” to his one and only student, lonely stutterer Dawn (Kate McDermott). As with Sure Thing, despite all objections and obstacles, love blooms, and there is an ache in the center of Dawn that McDermott fully embodies: “Language is the opposite of loneliness,” Dawn blurts out. When Don and Dawn unite in a flurry of Unamunda excess, it is pleasing.

The second half of the show, Mere Mortals, The Philadelphia, and Variations on the Death of Trotsky, seemed to run out of shine. Mere Mortals replaced Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread from the original incarnation of one-acts that made up All in the Timing, and I ended up wishing that the bell would have dinged on the choice. Having performers shout is no substitute for having them act the roles of construction workers, but this surface-skimming marked the second-half choices. The wit of David Ives still shone through, but it was like seeing a diamond encased in cubic zirconia.

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