By: David Sheward
There’s a fine line between satire and realistic comedy which two Off-Broadway productions attempt to walk. Lives of the Saints, David Ives’ program of short plays from Primary Stages, and Brooklynite, a new musical from Vineyard Theatre, contain elements of parody and sketch-style work as well as dashes of verisimilitude. While both raise chuckles for their more outlandish antics, they don’t quite get us to identify with their pratfalling characters.
The Ives evening consists of six playlets (one was cut during early previews) examining human relations from a decidedly comic perspective. Three are from an earlier same-named edition which had regional productions in Philadelphia and the Berkshires in 1999. Two of the older works and two of the new ones are one-joke premises stretched a tad thin. From 16 years ago, "Soap Opera" spins an amorous tale of a repairman in love with a washing machine which never breaks down (for younger folks, this is based on the then-famous Maytag washer commercials) and "Enigma Variations" pits a pair of identical patients with twin therapists. The former devolves into a series of puns related to detergent brand names and the latter exhausts every possibility on the theme of dualism. Among the more recent pieces, "The Goodness of Your Heart" is a two-hander about the price of friendship and "Life Signs" details a deathbed confession delivered after the body has officially expired. "Goodness" is a slight curtain raiser and "Life Signs" has a hint of wistfulness amid the zany jokes mixing sex and mothers.
The two pieces that work best are the ones which examine Ives’ Chicago Polish roots and don’t try so hard to tickle the audience’s collective funny bone. The new "It’s All Good" follows a writer encountering an alternative version of himself on a visit to his old neighborhood while the 1999 title piece peaks at two elderly church volunteers preparing a funeral breakfast. Both begin with gimmicks-"Good" employs a "Twilight Zone" trope of the protagonist entering a parallel universe where he made different life choices and "Lives" is performed without props or sets as a trio of onstage techies make the sound effects, perhaps to indicate that an unseen, benevolent force is looking out for those who give of themselves. In these bittersweet cameos, Ives goes beyond wisecracks and wordplay for two sensitive looks at the pain and joy of everyday existence.
Ives has successfully combined goofy premises with in-depth insights in previous sextets such as All in the Timing and Mere Mortals. Unfortunately, he achieves the perfect balance between the ridiculous and the sublime in only two of the offerings. Director John Rando, who delivered a snappy Primary Stages revival of Timing in 2013, is on the money again. Carson Elrod who sparkled in that production is on point again as the hapless washing-machine fixer and other strugglers in life’s mysteries. Liv Rooth and Kelly Hutchinson are particularly touching as the gossipy church workers while Arnie Burton and Rick Holmes also find guffaws and pathos in multiple roles.
Similarly, the new musical Brooklynite at the Vineyard attempts to merge a wild riff on comic-book superheroes with characters we are supposed to care about. There are some genuinely funny bits about superpowered folks and the trendy titular borough in Michael Mayer and Peter Lerman’s book as well as Lerman’s sprightly score, but they don’t come together as a whole. In addition Mayer’s direction has a stop-and-start quality with slow builds towards punchlines which elicit only mild smiles. Among the zanier bits is the lameness of the weakest member of the Legion of Victory, Avenging Angelo, who can miraculously find a good parking space. (Sorta funny, but not comic gold.) As a self-confessed comic-book geek and former Brooklyn dweller, I was particularly disappointed but there are pleasures to be had. Matt Doyle makes for an adorably dweeby superhero wanna-be and Nicolette Robinson is a dynamic Astrolass, the object of his idol worship. Tony nominee Nick Cordero (Bullets Over Broadway) gets laughs as the thick-witted Angelo, Gerard Canonico is a bubbly, dancing Kid Comet, and any show benefits from the presence of the witty Ann Harada (Avenue Q and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella).
Lives of the Saints **1/2
Feb. 24-March 27. Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue.-Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours including one intermission; $70. (646) 223-3010 or www.primarystages.org.
Photos: James Leynse
Feb. 25-March 29. Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC. Tue.-Wed., 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission; $85-$100. (866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com.
Photos: Carol Rosegg