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All in the Timing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

All in the Timing
Liv Rooth, Matthew Saldivar, Eric Clem, Carson Elrod, and Jenn Harris.
Photo by James Leynse.

Despair, if you must, about the state of discourse in all aspects of contemporary society. But rest assured that language, in all its brilliant and bloody glory, is the focus of passionate attention in All in the Timing. David Ives’s smash play from 20 years ago has now returned in revival to the company at which it began, Primary Stages, and is demonstrating once again the prevailing power of words over every aspect of our lives. That John Rando’s production does not fire on all cylinders is almost — but not quite — incidental.

After all, it’s difficult to argue too much with the comedic viability of the six chapters that comprise this briskly written anthology. Whether his subject is relationships, fate, or something more pointed, Ives has both found a way to elicit the maximum amount of absurdity from it and, perhaps even more importantly, has unlocked the ideal vehicle of communication for presenting it. What’s better: He commits to each so completely, as both a jokester and a dramatist, that in no case does he ever leave you feeling less than sated.

That’s not easy, but Ives makes it appear so, even as early as the first scene. “Sure Thing” finds a man approaching a woman at a table and chatting her up, until the first disagreement between the two is struck. (“Is this taken?” comes the question; “yes” is the curt reply.) As soon as it does, an unseen bell is heard, time rewinds, and both try again, over and over, until each has become something akin to the other’s ideal mate (at least for the evening). As the chimes peal with increasing frequency and ferocity, the couple is forced to rethink their tactics — and themselves — on a second’s notice, leading to a Gatling Gun–style cacophony of invigorating reinvention. You can quibble with how much sense the story makes, but the duo charmingly embodies both the think-on-your-feat ideal of modern romance and the percussive aesthetic of All in the Timing itself.

Rando’s production, which features cartoon-realistic designs by Beowulf Boritt (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes), and Jason Lyons (lights), never leaps higher or lands more precisely than “Sure Thing,” and the performances that follow do not match Carson Elrod’s and Liv Rooth’s in pure antic intensity. But a solid second place is “The Philadelphia,” in which a man named Mark (Elrod) finds himself trapped in a pocket of reality (referred to as the playlet’s title) where he can only acquire the things he neither wants nor asks for. With well-judged support from Matthew Saldivar as Mark’s friend Al (who himself is locked in a life-inspiring Los Angeles) and Jenn Harris as the bitchy waitress who personifies the frustrations and the potential found in the Philadelphia, the sequence is an entertaining, if twisted, meditation on how we fashion and are fashioned by the places we live and the statements we utter.

But if Rando and his company, which also includes Eric Clem in a couple of small roles, get the energy right in these two installments, they’re notably less successful elsewhere. “Words, Words, Words,” in which three monkeys labor eternally at typewriters to produce Hamlet, elicits few laughs in this muddy, bloated rendition that too strongly downplays the silliness of the premise’s underlying existential conundrum. A similar problem affects “The Universal Language,” in which a professor (Elrod) teaches a student (Harris) how to speak a nonsense tongue that, by virtue of base sounds and the performers’ inflections, is nonetheless completely understandable; but the actors’ performances lack the punch needed to make the obstacle pungent or the surmounting of it joyous, forcing it to play like a celebrity-starred Saturday Night Live skit that knows its clever but doesn’t know it isn’t funny.

The same is true of the second-act opener, “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” in which — well, it’s probably obvious. Its gag is that the most mundane action imaginable for its singular composer subject receives an elaborate, and endlessly repeated, rendering in exactly the style his own music favors. But a little of this goes a long way, and only floats when it’s feather-light. Rando’s touch is heavy, sufficiently so to dislodge the pacing by the split second that keeps any part of it from being hilarious, and if you’re not doubled over on the floor “Philip Glass” is a pretty tough sit.

Surprisingly, the last play is not, in no small part because it represents a departure from the theme. The inception of “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” is much like those of the others’: It’s inspired by an encyclopedia entry describing how the Marxist revolutionary was smashed in the skull with an axe, but didn’t die until the next day. But whereas every other work collected here goes bright, “Trotsky” explores the darker implications of this occurrence, pondering not only how it could happen, but why, and what it means to Trotsky (Saldivar), his wife (Rooth, at her most appealingly sensitive), and the Mexican axe wielder (Clem).

This parting shot might find both Ives and Rando at their most contemplative, though it’s also the reminder you need after a night of linguistic frivolity that words can maim just as easily as they tickle. But its sobering comedown would be more (ahem) cutting if everything that preceded it were just as sharp. Alas, with so much of its timing off, this All in the Timing is too often dull.


All in the Timing
Through March 17
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral