All in the Timing
Modern Muse has kicked off its new season with All In the Timing, six one-acts by David Ives, a witty, sometimes brilliant word-spinner. The plays are all about language, communication and understanding, and also chance and fate. The dialogue is light and funny and fizzy, and it gets your frontal lobes buzzing as you attempt to catch and process all the flying puns, allusions, jokes, rhythms and nonsense syllables. The set — by Stephen J. Lavezza, who also directs with his wife, Gabriella Cavallero — consists of three large panels covered with newspaper pages, on which bold words have been scrawled: blammagram, techihhila. In short, the real action is verbal, and you need to listen closely — which made it particularly distressing that on opening night, several members of the audience whispered and rustled all evening as if they were at home watching television.
In the first one-act, "Sure Thing," a young man and woman meet at a coffee shop. Futures are encapsulated in chance moments like this. Will the encounter be rapidly forgotten — "Is this seat taken?" "Yes" — or will it lead to marriage, children, a lifetime together? This particular couple seems to be blessed with some kind of invisible overseer, because whenever their interaction threatens to dead-end, there's a game-show-wrong-answer kind of ding, and they get to begin again. Is fate determined to see Betty and Bill end up together? Are their conversational stops and starts taking place in parallel universes somewhere? Or have the laws of time been suspended in their favor? No matter, because the playlet is sharp and sweet and beautifully acted by Susan Scott and Jeremy Make.
Another standout is "The Universal Language," in which a young woman walks into the makeshift office of a huckster who says he's teaching a new language called Unamunda that will "unite all humankind" (a claim that was once made for Esperanto). This language consists of vaguely sound-alike words and phrases: "John Cleese" for English; "al dente" meaning already, mixed with pieces of inspired gibberish worthy of Edward Lear. The young woman is a stutterer. She sees in Unamunda hope for an end to loneliness, and she proceeds to take on her teacher's speaking style with a vengeance, until eventually they're bopping and scatting and chanting together in an effervescent dance of language and meaning. There are echoes of Ionesco's far grimmer "The Lesson," an extended exploration of the uses of language that employs repetition and meaninglessness and ends with the death of the student; I also thought I caught references to the charming scene in Shakespeare's Henry V where the French princess takes an English lesson: "de hand, de fangres, de nails, d'arma, de bilbow." This play, too, is very well performed by Josh Hartwell and Jennifer Forsyth, who gives her character a particularly interesting combination of craziness and fierce vulnerability. On the wall is a banner proclaiming — in odd phonetic spelling — "When you freefall, find if heaven waits," and for these two, it does.
"Words, Words, Words" riffs on the theory that innumerable monkeys hitting the keys of innumerable typewriters will eventually create the text of Hamlet. Here, researchers are attempting to prove this theory, using three monkeys whom they've jokingly dubbed Swift, Milton and Kafka (oddly, none of the monkeys is Shakespeare). As the trapped apes type, bicker, hoot and periodically swing on a dangling tire, they quote fragments of Shakespeare and work their way through all kinds of cultural tropes: the elementary principles of Marxism, the plot of Hamlet. Kafka gets stuck on the letter K. Swift takes a jibe at postmodernism. Milton actually comes up with the first line of Paradise Lost: "Of man's first disobedience and the fruit/ Of that forbidden tree..." before getting stuck. Forsyth, Scott and Missy Moore hurl themselves into their simian roles with side-crackingly funny abandon.
"The Philadelphia," in which a man discovers he's fallen into a metaphysical hole where nothing is as it should be and he can't get anything he wants, is more pedestrian, playing on the provincial contempt that New Yorkers feel for Philadelphia. In "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," the Russian leader in exile is seated at a table with an axe in his skull while his wife, reading from a contemporary encyclopedia, tells him that this is the day of his death. Trotsky actually dies many times during the course of the scene, and there's a hilarious moment in which Scott, as Mrs. Trotsky, reveals that she can dance a terrific tango. "Variations" feels like one of those New Yorker pieces you know must be brilliant because otherwise it wouldn't be in the New Yorker but that nevertheless strikes you as sophomoric. And the last of the six, "English Made Simple," wants to mean far more than it actually does. I think. I couldn't be absolutely sure because of the distracting whispers.
I imagine the whisperers have gone home by now, so the timing is right: Go and see this clever, bright and very funny production.
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