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February 15, 2013

TT: Punchlines from another planet

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review two off-Broadway shows, Primary Stages' revival of All in the Timing and the New Group's premiere of Clive. One is sublime, the other hopeless. Here's an excerpt.

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Twenty years ago, Primary Stages put on a bill of six one-act comedies by a near-unknown playwright named David Ives. One-act plays are an appallingly hard box-office sell, but "All in the Timing" ran for more than 600 performances and established Mr. Ives as one of the top theatrical talents of his generation. Now Primary Stages is marking the 20th anniversary of the premiere by giving "All in the Timing" its first major New York revival. While I didn't see the 1993 production, I can't imagine how it could have been better than this glittering version, staged by John Rando, Mr. Ives' frequent collaborator, and acted with colossal éclat by five young actors who fit together like the pieces of a platinum-plated jigsaw puzzle....

AITTPrimary02.jpgWhat made the popular success of "All in the Timing" so noteworthy is that Mr. Ives' brand of humor is anything but simple. Indeed, it has far more in common with conceptual art--or alternate-reality science fiction--than sketch comedy....

Mr. Ives' hapless characters are all trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, usually in the most circuitous of ways. In "The Universal Language," for instance, a sad, mousy young woman with a stammer answers an ad for a school that purports to teach an Esperanto-like language called Unamunda in which the word for the woman's problem is "tonguestoppard." Not only is she the school's first and only pupil, but the teacher turns out to be...and I'll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that teacher and pupil are looking for the same thing--surcease from what a less pretentious playwright might call existential loneliness--and that, against all odds, they find it.

It's hard to do "All in the Timing" badly, which explains why it became one of the most frequently produced American plays of the 20th century. To do it well, however, requires a combination of preternaturally exact directorial timing and a cast whose members are alert to the underlying pathos of Mr. Ives' bizarrely skewed comic situations. Mr. Rando has got the first point covered--he's one of this country's finest directors of comedy--and his cast self-evidently understands what makes all six plays tick....

You'd think that a play starring Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Zoe Kazan would be worth seeing, but if you've seen "Clive," Jonathan Marc Sherman's modernized version of Bertolt Brecht's "Baal," you now know better. Except for the acting, "Clive" is perfectly awful, a monstrously self-indulgent show about a monster of self-indulgence in which Mr. Hawke plays a booze-and-dope-sodden downtown songwriter who destroys everything he touches, ending with himself, though not soon enough....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 15, 2013 12:00 AM

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