Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Lives of the Saints" - A Mixed Bag of Tricks

By Judd Hollander
Photo by James Leynse

Playwright David Ives looks beyond the surface of what seems normal in Lives of the Saints, his latest batch of one act works. Presented by Primary Stages, this collection of tales can now be seen at The Duke on 42nd Street. However unlike All in the Timing, Ives' previous offering which hit the mark on almost every level, this time out things are much more incomplete, providing some very interesting high points but also a great many more low ones.

Things start off with the two-hander The Goodness of Your Heart, about the bonds of friendship and what happens when it comes with a price tag. Long time friends Del (Arnie Burton) and Marsh (Rick Holmes) are sitting in Del's backyard, drinking beers when Marsh suddenly asks Del for a new television set.

Nicely written, the story is slanted in such a way that Del keeps finding himself at fault for trying to understand or even question the nature of such a request. Marsh's line of reasoning being that if one friend asks another for a favor, the other should do it with no questions asked; and with no expectations in return, including the need for the receiver of the favor to say "thank you". That last being understood as a given, rather than having to be said aloud. 

This is a play that could easily go in many different directions and also be expanded into a full-length work. Burton is hilarious as Del, doing one slow burn after another as he tries to figure out what to do; while at the same time being continually stunned by Marsh's seemingly straightforward reasoning. As for Holmes, he gives off a sort of honest naivety, to which he later adds an aggrieved air; offended that Del is even questioning his motives by seemingly trying to put a limit on their decades long friendship. Unfortunately the piece ends too abruptly, with the final result not all that satisfying. 

Conversely, the next piece, Soap Opera, suffers from being far too long in length. Manny (Carson Elrod), a Maypole Repairman – a riff on the classic Maytag Repairman commercials - has fallen in love with a Washing Machine (Liv Rooth). This attraction stemming from childhood incidents involving his mother (Kelly Hutchinson), who continually berated young Manny for always getting his clothes dirty. At least until the Maypole Washer made everything sparkling clean. Love eventually bloomed between the unlikely twosome, with Manny's fixation eventually threatening to destroy any chance he has for a relationship with Mabel (Hutchinson), his high school sweetheart. 

Certainly an unusual premise, the work is played far too broadly for the audience to really care about any of the characters involved. Another problem is the blatant overuse of bad puns--"...the Tide has turned....I gave it my All....so be of good Cheer", all of which quickly become more annoying than anything else. Also in the cast are Rick Holmes and Arnie Burton.

Next up is Enigma Variations. Feeling that everything in her life has happened before, Bebe 1 (Rooth) goes to Bill 1 (Burton), a psychiatrist of some sort. As Bebe I starts explaining her situation, Bill 2 (Holmes) and Bebe 2 (Hutchinson) emerge and start mimicking the words and gestures of Bill 1 and Bebe 1. Eventually the scene shifts from end to beginning, with different combinations of these four characters taking turns repeating the comments Bebe 1 and Bill I have made previously. The pace of each succeeding sequence continually increases, as does the speed of the words delivered and the movements of the actors, but the piece itself never really develops. Ives seems to be trying to talk about the infinite variety of the universes, with occasional bleeding between the different realities, but the work itself simply isn't all that interesting. Coming off as the weakest of all the one acts presented, it was probably a poor choice to put this one right before the intermission. Also in the cast is Carson Elrod.

Fortunately things start off much better in Act Two with Life Signs, by far the best offering in the group. Helen (Hutchinson), a rich, sixty-something woman has just passed away in her Park Avenue home, with her son Toby (Elrod), his wife Meredith (Rooth), and family physician Dr. Brinkman (Burton) in attendance. While Toby is left alone with the body, his wife seeing the Doctor out, Helen suddenly starts to talk, a situation the initially disbelieving Meredith soon sees for herself, in an absolutely hilarious sequence. Helen, unfettered from earthly obligations of social position and protocol, can finally afford to let her thoughts and opinions flow freely, and she proceeds to do just that. Most of said comments concerning sex, love and how she felt her just ended life was so unfulfilled and empty.

Somewhat course in language, one wonders how Hutchinson can speak her words with a straight face, or indeed with no expression at all as she delivers the funniest lines of the production while playing a basically lifeless corpse. Elrod does well as increasingly flummoxed Toby, doing one double take after another as he realizes the person he thought he knew so well he didn't really know at all. Most interesting of all here is the character of Meredith. Someone who never really got along with Helen when she was alive, yet who is clearly bonding with her now that she's dead. Though underneath all the humor is the very real warning that each of us only go around once and that you have to make your choices in live count before it's too late. Filled with excellent moments of comic time and strongly directed by John Rando, doing his best work in the production here, Life Signs alone is worth the price of admission.

Things go from the simply hilarious to the painfully wistful in It’s All Good. Stephen (Holmes), a successful writer now living in New York with his lovely wife Leah (Hutchinson), decides while in Chicago on business, to look in on the working class neighborhood where he grew up. On the way there, he meets and strikes up a conversation with Steve (Elrod) who invites him to join him and his wife Amy (Rooth) for dinner. Amy just happening to be the girl Stephen left behind when he went off to become a writer. What follows is a journey into The Twilight Zone as Stephen realizes he's somehow seeing how his own life would have turned out if he had not left all those years ago.

Poignant and powerful, this is one piece in which the acting firmly takes center stage. Elrod is able to convincingly project a working class persona of someone content in his life, while wondering what would have happened had he made different choices in the past. Holmes on the other hand, comes off as a man in torment. Someone who thought he had everything he ever wanted, only to come face to face with what he gave up in the process. Rooth works well as Amy, a hardscrabble woman who has had a good but certainly not easy life, while Hutchinson is nicely supportive as Leah. However, just as with earlier The Goodness of Your Heart, this play also ends too abruptly; with not enough time allowed to explore more of the possibilities presented.

Things wind up with Lives of the Saints, where Edna (Hutchinson) and Flo (Rooth), two elderly Polish women are working in a church kitchen, putting together a funeral breakfast for a neighbor they both knew. A situation most people can identify with - having food present in the wake of a death - regardless of their background, it's an enjoyable enough tale and Hutchinson and Rooth play off each other well. However an extra bit in regards to sound effects is either unnecessary or simply hints at there being something more to this world than what we knew, but after setting up the premise, the play drops it just as quickly. Also in the cast are Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod and Rick Holmes.

Costumes by Anita Yavich are fun, especially those in the Soap Opera segment. Lighting by Jason Lyons, as well as sound design & original music by John Gromada are fine. Special mention must also go to the excellent work of wig designer Tom Watson.

Cute sometimes, funny at others, Lives of the Saints is a pleasant enough diversion but never really comes together when everything is taken into account.

Featuring Rick Holmes (Loudspeaker Voice, Friend, Marsh, Bill 2, Stephen, Stagehand), Arnie Burton (French Maitre D', Madman, Del, Bill 1, Dr. Brinkman, Stagehand), Carson Elrod (Repairman, Fifi, Toby, Steve, Stagehand), Kelly Hutchinson (Mother, Mabel, Bebe 2, Helen, Leah, Edna), Liv Rooth, (Washing Machine, Bebe 1, Meredith, Amy, Flo).

Lives of the Saints 
by David Ives

Set Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Sound Design & Original Music: John Gromada
Wig Design: Tom Watson
Props Supervisor: Christine Goldman
Production Stage Manager: Robbie Kyle Peters
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: Keith Sherman & Associates
Production Management: Mind The Gap
Directed by John Rando

Presented by Primary Stages
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 646-22303010, www.PrimiaryStages.org or www.Dukeon42.org
Running Time: Two Hours, with one intermission

Closes: March 27, 2015

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