Conversation Piece

"Da rrrroongplatz? Oop da-doll! Du doppa da rektplatz! Dameetcha playzeer. Comintern. Police. Plop da chah."
Believe it or not, you've just been welcomed. Or "velcroed," as playwright David Ives would have it in The Universal Language, an uproarious one-act comedy about a language lesson in which the bulk of the dialogue is duly nonsensical and, after brief exposure, completely understandable. (Translation: "The wrong place? Not at all! You have the right place. Pleased to meet you. Come in. Have a seat."). But this one-act Esperanto is no mere play on words; nor are the five other one-act offerings that collectively form All in the Timing, the opening performance in the Alley's '94-'95 season. The plays are, instead, funhouse entertainments that explore verbal metaphysics -- heady amusements, if you will -- and you can't help but "get" the philosophy because of their nimbleness. I can't say All in the Timing is more fun than a barrel of monkeys -- but only because Words, Words, Words is about a barrel of monkeys that are used to prove that by typing randomly, Hamlet will ultimately be produced.

The six shorts making up All In The Timing cleverly blend comedy and intellectualism: stakes are raised even as they're made approachable. In Sure Thing, the opening one-act and Ives' most famous piece, strangers Bill and Betty sit at a cafe in an awkward pick-up scenario. At each gaffe, an off-stage bell sounds, the actors momentarily freeze and their conversation rewinds to just before the faux pas. Better answers are supplied, personalities are upgraded, topics are revised -- until the next blunder. Bill graduated from Oral Roberts University, no, Harvard, with a two-point, three-point, four-point average; Betty is waiting for her husband, her boyfriend she's about to dump, her lesbian lover, no one. From initial stumblings to charming romance, they discover the only sure thing about language is that it's "missed connections" -- and all in the timing.

Words, Words, Words further pushes the limits, and possibilities, of language. Three monkeys -- Milton, Swift and Kafka -- try "to prove the inadvertent virtues of randomness." Put in a cage with typewriters by an unseen doctor, their goal is to type randomly until Hamlet appears. They scratch, hoot, swing on a tire, smoke cigarettes and otherwise monkey around while sharing their progress (Kafka: 20 lines of 'K's), complaining about their lot and contemplating revenge on the God-like doctor. Hamlet peppers their conversation, as do puns. (About their African home, Kafka says, "Paradise, wasn't it?" Milton answers, "Lost!") Though the denouement is predictable, the existential undercurrent is not. Words compensate for entropy even while contributing to it: monkey see, monkey do.

The highlight of the sextet of plays, The Universal Language, comes next. A shy young woman enters an empty classroom to learn "Unamunda," a new universal language. The woman has a slight stutter, something her capped-and-gowned teacher, in an Ivesian nod to an obvious influence, calls a "tonguestoppard." And she's a word processor: "verboblender." Battling panic and confusion, the woman soon speaks flawless "Unamunda," inventing terms and planning to give up troublesome "Johncleese" entirely. Conscience-stricken, and tongue-tied, the teacher admits the class is a con, a "froyd," a "sigismundo froyd." But the woman, believing that "language is the opposite of loneliness," won't accept this; however it happened and whatever the form, they've connected via communication. The play resonates with the paradox that though language is ultimately arbitrary, even silly, it nonetheless enables sense, sensibilities and such emotions as love.

Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread is a linguistic parody (involving a "No Change" sign) of the avant-garde composer. In The Philadelphia, laid-back Al gives advice to frustrated Mark, who's in "a Philadelphia" -- a parallel universe where "no matter what you ask for, you can't get it" -- while Al himself is at a "cosmic beach: Los Angeles." Variations on the Death of Trotsky, in which the Russian leader can't get it through his head that he has an ax smashed in his skull, concerns his attempts to overcome "the power of the printed word" as exhibited by a future obituary his wife reads to him. These three plays, while whimsical and realized, have diminished ambitions, and accordingly, as a second act, are slightly less satisfying than the three others that work as

first act.
The Alley's production, correctly consigned to the intimate Neuhaus Arena Stage, makes Ives' comical surfaces shine and twinkle. In the early preview I saw, director Sidney Berger turned the antics into crowd-pleasers, moving things at a brisk pace and emphasizing exaggerated reactions. Sound man Joe Pino introduced each play with an ironic song, Sharon Lynch's costumes were wittily apropos and Randy L. Ingram's functionally spare sets included an intuitively appropriate checkered-tile floor.

But Berger overdid the merriment, entertaining at the expense of enriching. There's an undertow to much of Ives, but in achieving laughter, Berger misses some of that. He neglects, for instance, to make the monkeys the metaphysicians they are. Similarly, his German punk-art twist on Philip Glass is misguided. Berger's biggest oversight is ignoring emotions: the human condition, bottom line, is what makes the compressed ideas in All in the Timing so immediate. He favors pratfalls and shtick -- which the scripts call for, but not to the exclusion of feelings. It's not so much that the production fails -- far from it -- it just doesn't live up to Ives' comic grandeur.

Still, a good time is had by all, even if Ives' philosophical intentions are given short shrift. Though the Alley seems to know that "alla da peepholes enda voooold -- alla da peepholes enda looniverse" carry a song in the heart, the beat they keep runs a bit counter to Ives' highly literate, but not too highbrow, ontologically warped lingua franca. How do I know? "Da pravdaz enda pudding."

All in the Timing runs through October 9 at the Alley Neuhaus Arena Stage, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.


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