The set-up: Remember that old philosophy head-scratcher: give a monkey a typewriter and enough time, and eventually he'll write Hamlet? That hardly gives proper credit to Shakespeare, but it says a great deal about Words, Words, Words, which happens to be the title of the second of six plays which comprise David Ives' delightful All in the Timing (1993). He takes this premise and turns it nimbly inside out and upside down.
The execution: Here in a nameless lab, three monkeys labor all day over their iPads. Type, type, type, bitch, bitch, bitch. They resent having to create something they don't even know. What's a Hamlet? they ask with simian inquisitiveness. They share their poetic drudgery with each other, while searching for fleas and eating the cigarettes thrown to them by their unseen caretaker. Called Swift (Lindsey Ball), Milton (Robert Meza), and Kakfa (Mai Hong Le), the three monkeys growl their discontent, but inadvertently come up with a Shakespeare quote every now and then. They've learned to "put an antic disposition on" to get treats. This experiment hath mad them mad, says Meza's Milton. The laughs come from a certain rudimentary knowledge of Hamlet, but Ives' situation has comedy built in. Ives juggles like a circus clown.
Over the years, Ives has added eight other one-acts that a director can mix and match, but Landing Theatre Company uses the original arrangement that has been a success since its off-Broadway premiere.
Known for his sparkling adaptations of Moliere, Feydeau, and Mark Twain (Is He Dead?), and many of Lincoln Center's Encores series of neglected Broadway musicals, his latest play Venus in Fur (2010) has been a sure winner, produced this season at the Alley and seen in almost every other theater in the United States. Roman Polanski's film adaptation came and went last year without fanfare or box office.
This sextet is a Sure Thing, the title of the opening play. Bill (the amazingly proficient Scott Gibbs with his pliantly rubber face and eyebrows) meets Betty (Le) in a crowded restaurant, asking to sit down in the unoccupied chair at her table. Whenever one of them says something the other doesn't like, a bell is rung, and the conversation rewinds to the previous sentence and they try again. "Is this seat taken? Yes. Ding. Is this seat taken? No, but I'm expecting somebody. Ding. Is this seat taken? No, please sit down.
And off they go to the next topic until all problems are strategically worked out, everybody's content to go the Woody Allen movie, they both like Faulkner, and they vow to live happily ever after. The idea is sublime fun, and the bell gets quite a workout.
Universal Language is a lovely study in communication and language, as Dawn (Sammi Sicinski) applies to take a course in Unamunda, the new Esperanza, taught by Don (Will Gough, Jr.). With proficiency and smarts that stop her stutter, Dawn picks up the wacky syntax and vocabulary - "Harvard U" means "how are you," that sort of thing - and the two of them are flying high in a gibberish that actually begins to make sense to us, too. That Don's course is a sham doesn't phase Dawn in the least. She's giddy and free.
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Ives saves the best for last with Variations on the Death of Trotsky, a Monty Python sketch of the highest order. Sitting at his desk in Mexico, Russian revolutionary founding father (Meza in delightfully deadpan mode) has a mountain ax sticking out of his skull. Whenever he quizzes his doleful wife (Sicincki) about why it's there or the mysterious Mexican gardener (Gough), he suddenly drops over dead, then immediately pops back up, and another round starts. That Trotsky was indeed assassinated by his Mexican gardener using a mountaineer's ax only increases the existential comedy.
In the bowling alley-size space of the trendy Alley Kat Bar and Lounge - through the bar, across the service alley, around another lounge, and up the back stairs into the cement wall events space-- director Paige Kiliany lets her actors loose in the intimate playing area. They can't move very much, but Timing doesn't require a lot of physicality. When four of them line up with music stands to perfectly parody the minimalist movement in Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, they fill the space. The lighting's rudimentary, but we're not here for atmosphere.
The verdict: In Ives' world view, not only do words keep us going, but if we laugh at the absurdity of it all, we delay the inevitable ever so slightly. Landing Theatre's Timing, abetted by some very comic actors, has got that down to a science.
Performances of All in the Timing continue through July 27 at the Alley Kat Bar and Lounge, 3817 Main Street. Purchase tickets online at www.landingtheatre.org or call 562-502-7469. All seats $15. For another $15, you can buy dinner served at intermission.