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To the earnest, comedy is confusing. How can anything funny be truly serious? Their idea of a good time is a three-hour, six-hankie weeper about an atheist oncologist who comes home from a hard day at the storefront clinic to find his wife hanging from the showerhead, though they’ll settle for “Death of a Salesman.” If you doubt that such folk exist in abundance, ask yourself this: When did you last see David Ives’ name on anybody’s short list of major American playwrights? Yet Mr. Ives, who made his name writing comic sketches of the utmost brilliance and creativity before stepping up to the full-length plate with masterly plays like “New Jerusalem” and “Venus in Fur,” is one of this country’s half-dozen greatest living dramatists. An artist of the highest possible seriousness, he prefers to laugh at the vanity of human wishes instead of weeping.
“Lives of the Saints,” Mr. Ives’ latest off-Broadway venture, is a mixed bill of six one-act comedies, three of which are new and only one of which has previously been performed on a New York stage. If you’ve never seen any of his short plays, you’ll be staggered by how much meaning he can pack into 15 tightly written minutes. One of the new plays, “Life Signs,” is an epitome of his jovially surreal method. The curtain rises on a young man, his wife, his late mother and her spectacularly tactless doctor, who has just pronounced her dead. Only she isn’t: No sooner does the doctor leave the room than she comes back to life and starts revealing jaw-dropping secrets about her sex life. The shock effect is explosively funny, but within a few minutes you start to figure out that “Life Signs” is really a disguised version of “Our Town” in miniature, and all at once everyone in the theater catches on, stops laughing and becomes swept up in matters of profound import….
“Fish in the Dark,” which Larry David wrote as a vehicle for himself, is more in the nature of a well-remunerated personal appearance than an actual play. A thimbleweight comedy about two bickering brothers (played by Mr. David and Ben Shenkman) brought together by the death of their father, it consists of several thousand jokes, most of which involve somebody saying something inappropriate. Imagine a Neil Simon play without a plot—or three bottom-drawer episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” hastily knocked together into a two-hour script—and you’ll get the idea….
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To read my review of Lives of the Saints, go here.
To read my review of Fish in the Dark, go here.
An interview with David Ives, John Rando, and members of the cast of Lives of the Saints: