an evening of one-acts at CenterStage (through Aug. 25)
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: At the fourth performance of “The Wacky World of David Ives” at CenterStage on Friday night, the audience was small, the humor often strained, the timing sometimes off. Ives may be an acknowledged master of the genre known as “absurdist intellectual one-act comedy with lots of wordplay,” but even his scripts can sometimes seem dated or over-extended. The six CenterStage actors, usually competent, didn’t soar into any exceptional insights. Up at ella’s, my dinner-theater salmon was a little dry.
But let’s also consider the positive side of the ledger. Two of the seven playlets achieve a trick that’s hard to pull off: moving past jokey farce to the kind of intellectual comedy that elicits altered frames of reference and changes of heart. A couple of the actors pull off some finely observed moments. And Tim Behrens directs traffic capably.
Still, this is sketch comedy — smart, silly, thought-provoking comedy, but still trying to force its humor in that spontaneity-that’s-been-premeditated-and-you’d-damn-well-better-laugh kind of way. Comedy of this sort is usually hit-and-miss.
When skits are confined to one idea, as they sometimes are here, we grasp the contrast right off — and the humor drains away along with all the surprises. Examples: A guy thinks he’s found his identity ... as a typewriter. Or another guy (in a different play) falls in love with ... a washing machine. It’s funny, it’s cute, we get it after the first minute — but Ives milks the conceit too long. And it takes comedic talent greater than the CenterStage cast possesses to pull off this material with assurance.
The two best-performed one-acts here, however, move deftly and suddenly from game-playing silliness into deeper philosophical and psychological territory. In “Sure Thing,” Stephanie Brush and Scott Finlayson enact a couple’s first meeting; the scene restarts every time one of them says something that’s a relationship deal-breaker. It’s silly and fun, with the two characters coming off as capricious and childish. But as one date-ending bell after another sounds, the cumulative effect is a reminder: It’s miraculous that any of us ever find a mate, we’re all so picky and narrow-minded. The gimmick leads to an insight, and Ives’ script comes off so well here because Brush and Finlayson turn on an emotional dime from flirty to cold and over to assertive and back to bashful.
The other standout scene, “English Made Simple,” also involves Brush. A couple meet again years after their breakup; while the niceties of their small talk is parsed, another (identically dressed) couple pronounce what they’re really feeling (which doesn’t exactly meet Miss Manners’ Standards of Niceness). And you know you’ve hit on an important truth when audience howls over hearing usually unspoken thoughts. Yet even here, a switch in the men’s casting — Buddy Todd as the kind of officious instructor he does so well, and Skyler Chance McKinley as the romantic lead playing opposite Brush as the flirty-assertive woman that she does so well — would have balanced the scene better.
In a similar vein, there’s something liberating about sexual double-entendres and off-color expletives being thrown around with comic abandon. These may not be scripts for children, and they may be intended for adults — but they still appeal, with all their playfulness, to the kid inside all us grown-ups. (The smart-mouth, sassy kid, but still a kid.)
The complete version of this review will appear on Thursday in *The Inlander.* Additional topics there will include Behrens' directing, Finlayson's acting, the combination of physical comedy and intellectual humor in the skit about three monkeys typing *Hamlet* — and a commentary on dinner theater's future in Spokane.