A lot of cultural pretensions are examined in David Ives's hilarious collection of six playlets, All in the Timing--mostly in bursts of brilliant and sometimes surreal parody. Though none too deep, this offbeat offering is still right on, and the Germinal Stage Denver's finely tuned production is as delightful as it is disorienting.

The first play, Sure Thing, is about a pick-up artist trying to operate in a bar in which a referee blows a whistle that sounds like a censurious raspberry whenever Bill tries and fails to make time with Betty. He keeps on trying, too--and each time he does, he and Betty have new identities. Sometimes they're dorks, sometimes they're nice people with nothing in common. They try to communicate about Faulkner, college or politics until one says something irritating to the other. Then comes the referee's raspberry. It's all about why and how people fail to make connections, and when the two finally do have enough in common to hit it off, it comes as a relief. Delighting in what they share, they dash off to the Woody Allen retrospective down the street--and somehow, that rings true, too.

In the most absurd and most delightful of the plays, Words, Words, Words, three monkeys are locked in a room with three typewriters. Named Swift, Kafka, and Milton, the animals are part of a scientific experiment to test the old hypothesis that primates in their position will eventually come up with Hamlet. What they do produce is a load of nonsense (Kafka), parts of Paradise Lost (Milton), radical political rhetoric (Swift) and even, yes, a little Shakespeare. But what's really amusing is that the monkeys talk among themselves, deriding human ambitions, praising the work ethic of writers and, accidentally, coming up with some of the greatest thoughts ever expressed in literature.

In the third play, The Philadelphia, Ives probes what may be behind those days when everything goes wrong--not the big stuff, just all the little stuff. Maybe, he suggests, you're having a "Philadelphia," trapped in a kind of time/space warp where the only way to get what you want is to ask for the opposite. According to Ives, a "Baltimore" is a lot like a "Philadelphia" but not as intense. A "Los Angeles" is more laid-back--don't sweat it, it's cool, you can always package all this bad luck as a movie script--and way better than a "Cleveland," which is just like death but without the advantages.

The evening's second half begins with the story of a stutterer who stumbles into a school purporting to teach The Universal Language, a pastiche of nonsense words derived from English, French and anything else that sounds possible. What begins as a con on the part of school owner Don becomes a cause for Dawn, the woman who takes to the phony language instantly and loses her stutter. Together they will change the world, make the inarticulate eloquent and save the human race.

Variations on the Death of Trotsky is the weakest effort of the lot, but it does provide a little history lesson. And Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread is a clever parody of the minimalist master's musical style--a repetitious and grandiose celebration of the banal act of buying a loaf of bread.

Sallie Diamond's snazzy direction keeps the action at Germinal Stage flowing and the timing snappy. The dashing Michael Shalhoub has a wonderful face that adapts to any role as if his features were chiseled just for it. It's a pleasure to watch him as a pick-up artist, a monkey who spouts Milton, a con man, a communist assassin and Phil Glass himself. Cheryl McFarren carries goofy sweetness and prickly disdain with equal grace in all her roles, and Lisa Mumpton is another delightful comedienne--particularly adept at monkeyshines and caustic contempt. Paul Curran rounds out the ensemble with his pleasant face and expressive Everyman persona.

With the exception of the Trotsky piece, which is largely a bore, Ives's work is wonderfully funny and resonant. The playwright's vision is absurd but also basically kind--it's easy to identify with the lonely people looking for love, the monkeys looking for Art and the poor souls looking for meaning. That quality of gentle confusion in the face of incomprehensible forces is part of the spirit of the times, and Ives runs with that spirit.


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