Mere Mortals: Breezy Comedy with a Top Notch Cast and
David Ives does not go for belly laughs. His humor is existential and intellectual. It is designed to be appreciated in the brain. His comedies are sometimes rich and deep enough to be thought of as one act plays, but, overall, their short length makes them feel lightweight and ephemeral. The best way to be rewarded by this very pleasant evening in the theatre is to be prepared for 95 minutes of highbrow, satiric sketch comedy of a high order.
The first sketch, "Sure Things," is one of the most performed in the Ives oeuvre. Phil stops at a café table where Betty is seated and asks if he may share the table. The mating ritual begins. Each time one says something that puts off the other, a bell rings. The play reverts back to the moment before that statement was made, and words more felicitous to the listener replace it. Or so this sketch has generally been interpreted. However, this contrarian felt that each time the bell rang we encountered a new Phil or Betty, whose honest response would appeal more to the other. After all, just saying what the other wants to hear is valueless in terms of starting a tenable relationship. However, if I am correct, Ives is showing us how many different aspects (availability, locality, taste, sexual preference, interests, education, social status, politics) of two people have to be in synch for a relationship to flourish. Thus, each time that bell rings, a new Phil or Betty appears with a new aspect. Glenn Peters and Ericka Kreutz perform with perfect comic timing in an open and bland manner which perfectly accommodates the manifold variations in character that each must assume at the sound of the bell.
The second sketch, "Words, Words, Words," eviscerates the theoretical nonsense which academic intellectuals sometimes posit. Fairly or not, his point of departure is the infinite monkey theorem (described herein as "the inadvertent advances of randomness") which postulates that an infinite number of monkeys pecking at an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time would eventually produce Shakespeare's Hamlet. Ives introduces three lab monkeys who type random gibberish on their typewriters while verbally communicating to one another with considerable intellect their disdain for their academic masters. This one joke sketch manages to entertain, thanks to the impressively simian antics of Ariel Shafir, Raymond McAnally and Kreutz.
The third sketch, "Moby Dude," is a solo. Shafir embodies a California surfer high school student who is delivering an oral book report on "Moby Dick" to a skeptical English teacher. His surly body language and mod "valley boy" manner of speech belie his insightful, contemporary take on Melville, including his observations on "... a couple of chapters everyone skips on the 'scientology' of whales."
Next up is "Arabian Nights," which is whimsical and amusing, although less clearly pointed than the other sketches. An American tourist (Peters) just about to fly home enters a shop on the Casbah to buy a souvenir "collectable." An Arabian middleman (McAnally) translates the conversation between Flora the proprietress (Kreutz) and the American. His inconsistent and inaccurate translations fluctuate between advancing and squelching a romance between the other two.
The final two sketches are thematically unified and, along with the opener, the most substantial and satisfying of the evening. Their theme is the dissatisfaction which dogs the lives of ordinary individuals who, without any measure of ability or drive, aspire to greatness and immortality. The first of them is "Mere Mortals," which provides the overall title for the production. In this, the production's funniest sketch, three construction workers from New Jersey eat their lunches atop the scaffolding surrounding a new Manhattan building and expound upon who they "really" are. These three working class dreamers, Charlie Petrosian (Peters), Frankie McCorra (Shafir), and Joe Morelli (McAnally), have come to conclude that they are, in two cases, the lost scion of "royal" families, and, in the third case, the reincarnation of another royal. Much of the humor lies in the seriousness with which the three regard their own crackpot delusions while each skewers those of their co-workers. It is poignant and telling as each eventually expresses belief in the others in order to gain acceptance of his own fantasy. Adopting regional working class accents and only the slightest of comic inflections, this trio of actors delivers verisimilitude and humor in full measure.
The performance concludes with the low-key, charming "Degas, C'est Moi." This feels more like a short play than a sketch comedy. It is about an unemployed man (McAnally) who wakes up and decides that he will be the French painter Edgar Degas for the day. "Degas" meets about fifteen people (played by the other three cast members) in the course of making his day's rounds. He even signs his unemployment insurance form "Degas" that day, causing it to be rejected. McAnally brings a sweet Chaplinesque quality to the role, and, at the end of his day, a few kind words restore his acceptance of his true existence. There is a gentle humor throughout which holds melancholy at bay.
Mere Mortals has been provided with a large, handsome production and sparkling inventive direction. The façade and scaffolding of the building under construction provide the basic set. Between each play, the actors in varying combinations appear dressed as construction workers, sliding open rear panels of the scaffold to bring out properties, props and even a second set. This clever set is designed by Jennifer Zeyl. All this work is underscored by music and interspersed with some inspired mime, acrobatics, dance and even song. Credit director KJ Sanchez with all of this delightful scene setting which provides a buoyant mood for these Ives sketches. A crackerjack cast delivers each play to maximum effect. Each actor creates a gallery of distinctively amusing characters.
Realizing that a favorite Ives sketch of mine, "Speed the Play" (four David Mamet plays reduced to less than a total of eight minutes), performed in the Primary Stages (NYC) production of Mere Mortals was not included here, I did a little research. I discovered that a number (in the high teens) of Ives' pieces, including twelve which were performed in New York in the well received productions All in the Timing and Mere Mortals, have been performed in various combinations in theatres throughout the country and even in England. Two each in the current production were performed in each of the New York productions, so even if you have already seen them, it is likely that the other two sketches will be new to you. Director Sanchez has stated that she selected the plays that are her favorite among the multiple Ives one acts.
Mere Mortals and others are being given their full due and more in this lively and entertaining production.
Mere Mortals continues performances (Eves: Wed. – Sat. 8 p.m./Mats: Wed. 1 p.m. /Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m. through November 18 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey 07701. Box Office:732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Mere Mortals by David Ives, directed by KJ Sanchez
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Contemplative is the mood of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. It is a small, two-character play that is set one overnight in the Chelsea (NYC) apartment of Frances (Frankie), a 40-year-old diner waitress. She has brought home the restaurant's new 47-year-old short order cook, Johnny for a roll in the hay. Both have been badly hurt by marriages which ended in their abandonment.
Johnny wants a lasting relationship. Frankie is not ready to make a commitment. As they struggle with one another, there is much gentle humor. It is possible to coarsen this play, and play their conflicts for raucous laughter. However, to do so would damage the fabric of the play. After all, Debussy's delicate "Clair de Lune" sets the tone for these haunted lovers.
Lenny Bart conveys the sensitivity of the Johnny, who reads Shakespeare and has a dictionary in his locker, as he woos Frankie. Bart also shows that there remains in him some of the street Johnny who has led a checkered life in his nervous, erratic movements and the whininess and impatience which creeps into his voice. It is a carefully shaded performance that informs us that if things do not go his way, Johnny can slip and go in the wrong direction. However, Bart makes it clear that Johnny knows that he can hold it all together if he has a reliable person who needs him as much as he needs her.
Frankie is aware that the intense Johnny brings more smarts and a higher brow taste to the table than she does, and she fears that he's just using her for sex. Susan Barrett nicely conveys her simple sweetness, and she makes it clear that when she resorts to her potty mouth, it is because she fears getting into a relationship and intuits that it is the way to drive Johnny away. He tells Frankie how beautiful she is for most of the first act, Then, under the pressure of her rejection, Johnny blurts out, to a late night classical music radio host whom he has telephoned, that neither he nor Frankie are particularly attractive. We understand this to be true. Yet, Bart and Barrett engage us by letting us see the attraction that they have for one another.
A good deal of the credit for all of this must be given to the sensitive direction of Lauren Moran Mills. The playable, but slightly too attractive set for the cramped one-room "walk-up tenement apartment" is credited to Greg Moran and Kathrynne Forsbrey.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is a low key play that plays best when performed as it is here in a small theatre with unadorned honest performances. It is not one of the best Terrance McNally plays, but when performed as well as it is here, it provides a rewarding experience.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was performed October 19 – November 4, 2007 at the Women's Theatre Company at the Parsippany Community Center, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, NJ 07034. Box Office: 973-316-3033; online: www.womenstheatercompany.org.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally; directed by Lauren Moran Mills