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Theater Reviews : 'All in Timing' Runs Like Fine Swiss Watch

August 22, 1995|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Financially challenged theater companies on the slippery slope of modern theater often grab onto big names or big effects to forestall a fall into oblivion. In such a world, the art ofthe short play--high on craft, short on spectacle--has become an endangered species.

But the form gets a shot of vitality with David Ives' "All in the Timing," a wonderfully whimsical set of six playlets, smartly staged in a sparkling West Coast premiere by Ensemble Arts Theatre.

Ives, who has been writing for 20 years, became an overnight sensation when "All in the Timing" opened off-Broadway in early 1994 and ran for 18 months. Critics delighted in his clever ruminations and wordplay about everything from time, love and relationshipsto life, death, Trotsky and Philip Glass. He has been compared to Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and Stoppard.

He reminds this viewer more of the early Woody Allen, whom one of the characters in his plays rhapsodizes about--the funny Woody Allen who still believed, or at least wrote as if he believed, in love and happy endings even in an admittedly absurd world.

Crisply directed by Maria Mangiavellano in Ensemble Arts Theatre's new home, a cozy 45-seat black-box theater in San Diego's Golden Hill, four fine local actors play all the parts with minimal props and over-the-top wit, heart and, yes, impeccable timing.

The first of the six plays, "Sure Thing," mocks its own title. A man (Tim West) and woman (DeAnna Driscoll) meet at a restaurant/bar. The man approaches the woman, and every time he or she says the wrong thing, something that would end the encounter, a bell goes off (like the bell in a boxing ring) and they get to try again.

There's a whiff of Alan Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges" about it--the idea that a different choice of words can lead to utterly different results in one's life. There's even more of "Groundhog Day," the Bill Murray film in which Murray's character got to relive one day over and over until he got it right.

*

Ultimately, the piece is infused with its own character and sensibility and a bittersweet reminder of how easily a road can diverge and what a miracle it is when two people actually do manage to end up with the same vision of togetherness at the same time.

All of the plays are funny.

"Words, Words, Words" is a rumination on the question of whether three chimpanzees (Don Loper, Betty Matthews and Driscoll doing some super simian leaps) can randomly reproduce "Hamlet." They start getting there because they are agonizing (in true Hamletian fashion) about being handed this unsurmountable task while being manipulated by forces beyond their control.

And then there's "The Philadelphia"--divinely inspired from Comedy Heaven-- in which a man (West) finds himself in a Twilight Zone-like place that his friend (Loper) calls a "Philadelphia," meaning that whatever he wants, he won't get. The smug friend, who happens to be in a "Los Angeles"--a state in which everything's cool and a potential screenplay--tells him the only way to live with a Philadelphia is to ask for what you don't want.

Anyone who has been in "a Philadelphia" can relate.

The other three short plays show different poignant nuances in the playwright's sensibility. "Variations on the Death of Trotsky" (West, Matthews) draws humor from the ever-theorizing Trotsky and his refusal to accept his own death--at least until he reads about it in the encyclopedia.

"Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" (West, Loper, Driscoll, Matthews) with expert musical direction by Carlos X. Pena, both mocks and celebrates Glass' postmodern operatic style, putting the composer at the unexpected center of a typically Glassian moment.

Finally, "The Universal Language" is an ode to love that more than makes up for its cliches with cleverness, as a shy, stuttering woman comes to a teacher of universal language for confidence and both teacher and pupil get more than expected.

Displaying the company's characteristically strong ensemble work, the actors complement each others' styles by suggesting different coping styles in Ives' askew world. Driscoll is the dangerous, on-the-edge personality who doesn't suffer fools gladly. She scores big with this approach in "The Sure Thing," suggesting that this is a woman you don't dare use the wrong line with.

West conveys the anxiety of the common guy struggling to muddle through--pumping extra angst and gravity in the admittedly different Trotsky role.

Matthews' strength is her vulnerability in "The Universal Language," alternating with brittle sophistication in "Variations on the Death of Trotsky." The remarkably limber Loper needs and gets no special makeup to be all chimp, swinging from a tire in "Words, Words, Words," and as the smug friend due for a comeuppance in "The Philadelphia."

The design elements here are basic--simple appropriate costumes (overalls for the chimps), a table for the bar, a desk for Trotsky, a bakery counter for Glass' epiphany. That suits the material just fine.

The show also is a bold statement from the 6-year-old company, now in its first permanent home after years of traveling on the proverbial shoestring from one rented space to another.

It may have overhead now, but it plans to continue doing the kind of new and/or provocatively directed shows it has always produced.

* "All in the Timing," Studio Theater, 2323 Broadway, Golden Hill, San Diego. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10. (619) 696-0458. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. An Ensemble Arts Theatre production of six short plays by David Ives, directed by Maria Mangiavellano. With DeAnna Driscoll, Don Loper, Betty Matthews and Tim West. Musical direction: Carlos X. Pena. Technical direction: Sue Ann Pauley. Costumes and props: Jennifer Good, Noma McClellan. Stage manager: Suzanne Begulin.

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