THEATER REVIEW: With murk and merriment, the Ives’ have it at PS21

“Long Ago and Far Away” & other comedies by David Ives/ PS21, Chatham

WHAT! WALKING THE DOG THEATER doing David Ives? Aren’t they the standard-rep, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Dickens, Thornton Wilder folks? Does not compute.

But of course it does. The mild intellectualism and whacky-funny-trendy wit and wisdom of Ives is a good place for the company to go in their repertoire-walk (classic, to Dylan Thomas, to Sarah Ruhl, to David Ives).

These are seven short, small-cast, good-actor-dependent plays, in minimal settings, performed by five actors. The plays harpoon modern absurdities by pushing them extravagantly: television tyranny, expert tyranny, the sci-fi edges of science/philosophy, naïve foreign affairs, social invisibility.

Our first view of the set (mottled, flophouse-yellow walls with two baby-blue doors) shouts “farce,” but does not promise beauty. Fortunately, as the evening progresses, it permutes into useful and interesting configurations, and the roar of its manipulation across the PS21 stage is somehow a dramatic plus. (Go figure.)

The performance begins with artistic director David Anderson and producer Judy Grunberg doing a short, farcical pas de deux, ending down front with Grunberg moving, shifting, gesturing to deliver necessary audience-info, while Anderson stands stony-still, mentally absorbing (counting?) the house. I liked it.

Next, Bradley Fay’s stage lights tell us that Anderson has moved into play mode. The actor casts his powerful gaze directly into audience eyes for the opening monologue, lives humorously for the moments of the little play, flashes a surprising, shiny smile, and retreats into his other roles as magical-director and stagehand.

His direction, result of his famous “process,” is effective; though, on the mechanical side, one might ask him to insist on more vocal heft from Nancy Rothman. (She is sometimes so deep into text that she forgets to share.)

The underlying messages of these funny-murky plays often do not underlie as much as you might expect. Sample: Two mayflies, after discovering that they will live for only one day, squeal, flap, panic-dance, screw, eat, and fall upon their knees crossing themselves, while the hilarious Glenn Barrett (as documentary host Richard Attenborough) endlessly intones “Meeting, mating, meeting, mating, breeding, dying,” (was there an “eating” in there somewhere?). “Meeting, mating, meeting, mating, breeding, dying.” Mayfliers Josephine Elwood and Gabriel Rodriguez do it up right.

The second act (two plays) has more murk than humor, but, with “Arabian Nights,” I couldn’t help pasting on some geo-politics/history whether Ives intended it or not. Barrett plays a wonderfully innocent American tourist (USA?) visiting the exotic middle East. In a shop, he samples wares (oil?) to take home; he courts the store’s lovely proprietor (Rothman) (Arab leadership?), and leaves his luggage (bombs? foreign aid?) behind while vowing to return! All the while a sexy Arabic interpreter (Rodriguez) (Arab culture?) slithers and weaves through the scene, oozing slanted meanings and sly, ancient knowingness. Too kindergarten neat? Well, okay.

Costumes by Kara Demler do the job; and Fay casts yummy, sensuous light into the television and painting scenes. (In the Degas play, his light is perhaps more Rembrandt than Impressionist.)
Anderson modestly takes his bow early. He joins the mute prop-carrier/stagehands. In cast bows, the men seem to reap more appreciation than the women.

As for Ives, he is everywhere these days, making plays, novels, translations, and adaptations of musicals. From White Christmas to Feydeau, he’s done it all. In interviews, he glides forward in beautifully honed paragraphs that reek of the Yale education, the editing at “Foreign Affairs,” and a basic brainy temperament. If that’s not impressive enough, know that supposedly he is collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on a new musical. (Two logophiles in a musical pod! What shall they wreak?)

Long Ago and Far Away runs through July 21. Visit the website at www.wtdtheater.org.
Do walk this dog wherever she wants to go. She pisses gold.
Important addendum:

PS21 is theater-al-fresco. Turn on your Off, or, at intermission become aware that itchy protuberances are blooming all over your poor, miserable corpus.

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