writes mostly bon-bon-size playlets, David Ives has been successful in
keeping his name before us. His best-known collection, All in the Timing,
has been performed many times locally, including at Syracuse Stage and
last month by Rarely Done Productions. A lot of his work looks like
white-bread farce, contrived only to generate laughter. Then again,
Ives’ most recent New York City hits were Is He Dead?, an adaptation of a lost play by Mark Twain, and New Jerusalem, about
the 17th-century excommunication of philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
Underneath his Jerry Lewis-silly surface, we can always tell Ives has
been reading Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jean Baudrillard.
The title An Evening of Ives, now at Le Moyne College’s Coyne Center for the Performing Arts, does not
originate with the playwright. Le Moyne professor and actor Michael
Barbour has chosen it for this assembly of five Ives items, three of
which locals are seeing for the first time. Variations on the Death of Trotsky is always included in All in the Timing and that play’s finale, The Philadelphia,
sometimes is. Not only is each different and discrete, but the speedy
action and rapid change of scene—five little comedies in just 75
minutes—is a test of student actors’ range and adaptability, which they
Ives got a secret: Zach Chase and Kim Pompo in The Mystery of Twicknam Vicarage, one of five David Ives plays at Le Moyne College.
Of the quintet, The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage
puts its meaning closest to the surface. With familiar trumpets of
Jean-Joseph Mouret’s “Rondeau,” the opening fanfare for PBS mainstay Masterpiece Theatre,
a genial if slightly condescending host (director Barbour) welcomes the
audience to the genteel world of British mystery drama. All the Agatha
Christie-ish suspects make a quick entrance, with a pistol shot. We
have two somewhat louche women with hyphenated names, Sarah
Penworthy-Pilks (Fiona Barbour) and Mona Thumpington-Fffienes (Kim
Pompo), and the whiny clergyman husband of one of them, the Rev. Roger
Penworthy-Pilks (David Melchionne), before whom lies what looks like
the dead body of another, Jeremy Thumpington-Fffienes (Drew Eiden),
sprawled on the floor. The mustachioed Inspector Dexter (Zach Chase)
speaks with such a heavy accent we can barely understand him and would
not inspire confidence if he did.
Spoofs of Agatha Christie are common enough, but Ives has rangier game in mind. While there’s been much great stuff on Masterpiece Theatre
over the years, its Anglophilia clearly grates on the Midwestern-born
Ives. As the characters piece together the whodunit, we learned that
the private lives of persons at the vicarage are filled with more
rutting than in a stud farm, especially the purported victim. Instead
of the better sort we might have expected, we hear about ravenous
sexual appetites to burn the pages of a Kinsey researcher.
Along with these stories are the
flimsiest moral rationalizations. An adulterous wife pleads, “I slept
with him only once, but it wasn’t a success.” Their worse sins are
verbal, however, as folks at the vicarage speak only in clunky cliches.
She: “I’ve killed the only man I ever really loved. . . .” He:
“Really?” She: “ . . .in a hammock.” There are also deliberately
groan-worthy gags. A toasted penguin is reported to taste a lot like
The second item, Arabian Nights,
only half as long as the first, teases out a theme running through many
plays of Michael Frayn, on how translators betray the messages they’re
supposed to deliver. Norman (Alex Gherardi), an utterly normal tourist
in the Muslim world, is led by an overeager interpreter (Patrick
McHugh) to a bazaar, where Norman hopes to buy a trinket to take home.
There he meets a comely but otherwise very ordinary (it says so in the
program) shop clerk named Flora (Katie Edwards). All three performers
speak American English, but we understand that Flora really only knows
Arabic. After the interpreter translates Norman’s hesitant, “Well . .
.,” as “a deep round hole in the ground,” we know the tourist will get
something other than what he wants in the shop.
Both Variations on the Death of Trotsky and Enigma Variations
are farces that turn on postmodernist themes. In the first the former
Bolshevik revolutionary (Mike Kulha) begins the scene with an ax thrust
deeply into his skull. In reality the assassin we know who killed him,
Ramon Mercader (Drew Eiden), has done what his bosses asked of him, but
Mrs. Trotsky (Katie Edwards) keeps telling him the encyclopedia says
his death is not supposed to occur until Aug. 21, 1940. The ax might
have penetrated Trotsky’s brain on the 20th but, slave to the text that
he is, he never feels anything until he finds himself in line with the
Playful cultural references also drive the balletic Enigma Variations,
a title taken from composer Edward Elgar. Two women with the same name,
Bebe 1 (Fiona Barbour) and Bebe 2 (Kim Pompo), converse with two
therapists named Bill 1 (Zach Chase) and Bill 2 (Patrick McHugh), who
might also be known as Will. They are interrupted by Fifi (Mike Kulha),
who might be Aphrodite, goddess of love, or a muscular transvestite.
The proliferation of doubling puns, like “oui-oui” and “wee-wee,” gets
wearisome but the precision of the actors in this mismatch of
communication and surrogates continually generates amusement.
The best is saved for last: The Philadelphia,
a sharper slur against the City of Brotherly Love than any W.C. Fields
came up with. As barfly Al (Dave Melchionne) puts it, “This is the town
that invented the cheesesteak that no one in their right mind would
ever order.” In a concept adapted from French philosophy, tourist Mark
(Alex Gherardi) has entered an alternative universe where he can never
get what he asks for. Al explains, “Physically, you’re in New York but
metaphysically you’re in Philadelphia.” And further, “I tried to get
the Daily News but had to settle for the Toronto Hairdresser.”
In the Hopperesque restaurant where they
sit, a sign offers nothing but the inedible, like deep-fried gizzards
for $27.95. Not to worry; you can’t get them if you want them.
Following Al’s advice Mark learns how to deal with the tall, gorgeous,
but completely indifferent waitress (Eileen Behan). He runs through a
list of drinks he does not want: vodka, Coke, Pepsi, bourbon, seltzer,
whisky, gin, ale. They’re all out of ’em. The only thing left is
(bingo!) beer, which is what he secretly wanted all along. And the only
way to make time with the waitress is to be even more indifferent than
she is and say he’s not interested in her company.
An Evening of Ives runs under Le
Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin Theatre Group aegis, but is staged in
the Marren Studio, a black box venue upstairs in the Coyne Center.
Minimalist sets rely on back projection and recorded music, of which
the most stirring is the old Soviet anthem by the Red Army Chorus.
This production runs Thursday, April 10, through Saturday, April 12, 8 p.m. For information, call 445-4523.