All in the Timing
by David Ives
Theatre Saint Thomas
David Ives' All in the Timing has always seemed to me something like one of those puzzles you buy in upscale toy stores -- a bag of apparently unrelated pieces that, you're assured, with enough skill and patience, will eventually all fit together into a sphere or cube. There's always a keystone piece, one that slips in surprisingly and suddenly makes everything else relate -- but often, for me, I never find it, and the pieces go back in the bag, unassembled, teasingly incomplete, making me wonder if really the pieces all do actually fit together.
In Ives's case, the puzzle is complicated by the fact that we don't really know which pieces belong, whether we've got all of them, or whether there are a few extras in the bag. Although productions are usually made up of a half-dozen short plays, which ones they are vary from one production to another, and indeed Ives himself seems pretty flexible about which plays actually go together. In the case of the current Theatre Saint Thomas production, directors Ilkay Silk and Jordan Trethewey picked five that are almost always included, and ended the evening with one that's not there so often. Whether the choice, and the order, helped the audience in finding the shape they might all add up to, is open to question; what isn't open is whether the evening was engaging, exhilarating fun, a challenge to actors, directors and audience, and one that repaid attention and reflection. That attention and reflection was supported powerfully by the utterly simple setting: An empty space of the kind that only the Black Box can provide, and behind the acting spaces lighting designer Chris Saad provided just four tall rectangles of light, in various combinations of colors for each of the pieces.
Let's take them one by one. "Sure Thing" is probably the most frequently performed David Ives piece, and there's good reason. Anyone who's seen it remembers the way in which a pickup in a restaurant is reduced to a kind of cascade of conversational and existential faux pas, with a bell ringing to signal that something's gone wrong and the characters should go back a step, or sometimes three, and take another run at the conversation. Watching Step Taylor and Leah Holder negotiate the prickly relationship ("Where was college?" "I went to Oral Roberts University." DING. "Where was college?" "I was lying. I never really went to college. I just like to party." DING. "Where was college?" DING. "Harvard.") reminded me of Duchamp's wonderful "Nude Descending a Staircase" in which the motion is broken into what seems thousands of tiny freeze-frames laid one over the other. It's often compared to the Bill Murray vehicle, Groundhog Day, but here the restarts are hooked to the character's social gambits. We're brought in each jump to see the tightwire we live on as we try to make contact: disaster always lurks around the next syntactic corner, and what makes "Sure Thing" work so well is the way we in the audience repeatedly bang our own heads against the successive disasters. "It's all in the timing," says Step Taylor's character at one point, and sure enough, it is. If the piece sometimes ran a little faster than breakneck, and if the bell and the restart didn't quite always get our startled attention, it didn't really matter all that much.
"English Made Simple" offered us Carl Dalton and Crystal Connolly in a series of relationship vignettes punctuated by a disembodied voice announcing how each would exemplify how English is actually used in situations, and became a bravura study in sudden, dramatic shifts in mood and relationships, shaped by Ives' trademark verbal accuracy in picking out how standard conversational clichés can conceal time bombs and double entendres.
"The Philadelphia" is, on the surface, something quite different, as two characters in a restaurant discover that one of them is mired in "a Philadelphia" -- a social space in which nothing you want is actually available, where the only reasonable response is to ask for the opposite of what you want in order to get it. The opposite, unspoken, space is of course a New York or Los Angeles, where whatever you want is always there -- the space that Step Taylor's Al inhabits with an overpowering cool reminiscent of the kind of awful self-assurance that Jules Feiffer's cartoon nebbishes used to live in awe of. Probably the funniest of the six pieces, it turns on the upending of the relationship as Al explains to Derek Nason's increasingly confident Mark how to get what he wants even in the depths of a Philadelphia, and as both of them engage in a wonderful verbal tennis game with Emily Curry's waitress, suddenly we discover that Al himself has become mired in a Philadelphia of his own. Whether an audience in Fredericton is in a position to sneer at Philadelphia as sophisticated Manhattanites might is an open question. It's one to which we all know the answer -- but we found ourselves believing it, and sneering, anyway.
The second half opened with what might be either the key piece or the one that doesn't belong to the puzzle at all: "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," which is built around an encyclopedia entry recounting that Trotsky was killed by an assassin posing as a servant, who struck him with an ice axe, causing his death the next day. The play offers us a half-dozen variations on what might have happened that next day in some parallel universe where someone with an ice axe in his head might not notice (Trotsky's wife reads him the encyclopedia article, for example, whereupon he notices the axe and expires dramatically). Step Taylor's successive spectacular deaths, along with Leah Holder's patient explanations and a couple of appearances by Derek Nason as the fake Mexican assassin, drew the most sustained laughter of the evening.
"Universal Language" is an ambitious parody of the Esperanto campaign, in which an unscrupulous entrepreneur has set up a studio in which he promises to teach the language that will be understood everywhere, and an innocent student arrives eager to cure her stutter and speak the universal language. The language itself is a brilliant invention, worthy of Tom Stoppard. I was reminded of the artificial language in his Dogg's Hamlet, in which, for example, "Plank" means "here" -- and surely the reminiscence is deliberate, since at one point "Tom Stoppard" is the universal language's phrase for "tongue stopper." It's in fact the main source of laughter in the play, and if Derek Nason's speed of delivery sometimes meant that we missed the good ones, there were plenty to go around, as Emily Curry as the student actually begins to speak the nonexistent language, and becomes a proponent of what began as a scam. If it seemed to run a little longer than it should, perhaps it was we weren't catching all the delicate wit of the doubletalk "universal language," but I've never seen a production in which that problem was solved.
Ending the evening was a play which is usually not listed as part of All in the Timing, the wonderfully complicated "Foreplay, or The Art of the Fugue." The structure is this: Chuck is taking a date to play miniature golf; we watch a young Chuck (STep Taylor) putting the make on an innocent victim, Amy (Emily Curry); as this goes on and they get to about the third hole and the sexual innuendoes rise toward a climax, we see a slightly older Chuck (Derek Nason) doing the same thing -- perhaps some years later -- and being much less successful with a much less innocent victim, Annie (Crystal Connolly). Both couples continue, in counterpoint, and about the time Chuck #2 gets to the third hole an even older and even less successful Chuck (Carl Dalton) and his date enter -- this time, he's not only losing the seduction game but also losing at miniature golf. In large part the humor comes from the verbal fugue that ensues as the three relationships play out in a brilliantly-timed six-actor counterpoint, with Leah Holder's wonderfully contemptuous third "seductee," Alma, dominating the action. It's an effective ending to the show, bringing all six actors together for the first time, and their energetic leapfrogging segué into their bows reminds us how brilliantly physical, as well as intellectual, the evening has been.
At the end, all you know is that, however they do fit together, the structure you walk away with is going to involve something about how we use language -- especially clichés, especially the verbal hand-me-downs that lubricate our social lives. Maybe you don't really understand how the unexplained gap in the encyclopedia account, between the implantation of the ice axe in Trotsky's skull and his mysteriously delayed death the next day, fits with all the other pieces' explorations of the superficial clichés that suffuse all our lives. But finally it may not matter much. It's not about the substance, but, as Ives insists, about the timing, and in this production the timing is well-nigh perfect.