Only Human

Mere Mortals is a mixed bag

click to enlarge ORDINARY PEOPLE: Christopher Swan, Brian Shea - and Jeff Norton in Mere Mortals. - AMERICAN STAGE
AMERICAN STAGE
ORDINARY PEOPLE: Christopher Swan, Brian Shea and Jeff Norton in Mere Mortals.

"The Green Hill" is the last of the seven short works in David Ives' Mere Mortals and Other Plays, and it's the one that best demonstrates what a wonderful writer Ives can be.

It's the story of a man named Jake (played with emotional precision by Brian Shea) who for years has had a vision of a beautiful green hill on which he is the lone, ecstatic climber. One day he sees his hill in an otherwise unmarked travel poster and he resolves to find his way there — wherever it may be.

The only problem is that his search will take him away from his devoted lover Sandy (superbly played by Colleen McDonnell). Still, he resolves to proceed — and his wanderings in search of the hill take decades. At first he's able to keep in touch with Sandy, but eventually he loses contact and can't even find her to call her.

Finally, having failed in his quest, he decides to return to his home and Sandy, but he trips and falls and perhaps loses consciousness. And then the one true green hill rises all around him and on it with him is Sandy, saying "Welcome home."

The play ends and we don't know whether he's alive or dead, whether he's hallucinating or seeing clearly. But he's reached his heart's desire and somehow returned to Sandy's side. We leave them together, reunited.

What does it mean? Well, it may be that Jake's real green hill was always Sandy herself, and that he never found it in his treks because in travelling he lost her. Or it may be that the green hill — the perfect place — exists nowhere on earth but only in heaven, and that Jake has died and so has Sandy. I can imagine other interpretations also; but they only seem important because Ives' play is so lyrically written, so beautiful and mysterious. The whole thing takes only 15 minutes, but it's as complete and resonant as a Chopin ballad, and quite as affecting.

This is Ives in top form: allusive, intellectual, passionate and, at times, very funny.

Unfortunately, not all of Ives' plays are equally stimulating. In fact, he tends to be attracted to two types of dramatic ideas: those that are worthy of a quarter-hour of an audience's time, and those that would more effectively work as a single panel — enjoyed in mere seconds, like one of those much-missed Gary Larson Far Side cartoons.

Of course, the problem is that 15 minutes of the latter can seem fourteen-and-a-half minutes too long. And that's the problem with about half of Mere Mortals: there's a clever concept, it takes us seconds to understand and enjoy it, but then the sketch goes on and on and eventually becomes tedious. For readers who aren't familiar with Ives' work, let me insist that the playwright is capable of real brilliance, as demonstrated not only here, but in some of his sketches that didn't make it into Mere Mortals — "Foreplay, or the Art of the Fugue," "Seven Menus" or "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread." But what American Stage is offering currently is just seven of Ives' short one-acts, and only a few of these are Ives' best. The result is a production that disappoints as often as it satisfies.

The evening begins with classic Ives: a wonderful duologue called "Sure Thing." What the author dramatizes here is the difficulties two strangers face when trying to make contact and, perhaps, initiate a romance. Ives' method is ingenious: He shows us a conversation that's interrupted by a bell every time it goes off track; then the characters restart a few lines back and try to get past the hurdle that stopped them the first time.

So when Bill (well played by Jeff Norton) makes the error of telling Betty (McDonnell) that Hemingway wrote The Sound and the Fury, the bell rings and the conversation stops. A few moments later, Bill gets the author right — "Oh, Faulkner," but says he read the novel at Oral Roberts University — and the bell rings again. As with most of Ives' best plays, this one has a serious subtext: it is dreadfully hard not to say the wrong thing when you're talking to someone unknown to you, especially when there's a sexual interest pushing you on. "Sure Thing" makes this point delightfully and fully earns every minute of its stage time.

The next piece, "Mere Mortals," isn't quite as effective, though it also has serious overtones. Three construction workers — Joe, Charlie and Frank (Shea, Norton and Christopher Swan) — are eating lunch on a girder 50 stories up when Charlie confesses that he is Charles Lindbergh's rightful son, thought by many to have been kidnapped and killed many years ago. Joe is skeptical; but Frank, encouraged by Charlie's candor, admits that he too is someone special: the not-really-assassinated child of Czar Nicholas the Second of Russia, and thus the legitimate heir to the Russian throne. Charlie welcomes this Russian monarch as a friend, but Joe remains a doubter — until forced into a confession of his own. The sketch is brief (at least once the confessions begin) and has a respectable subtext: the desire of ordinary people to be "somebodies," to be worthy of press coverage, bestselling books and made-for-TV movies. True, Ives doesn't take this concept far, but it's there supporting the dialogue and makes the short play more than a mere novelty.

But that can't be said of the next four works in the evening's line-up. "Time Flies" is about two mayflies (Shea and McDonnell) who learn, to their distress, that their life span is only 24 hours, during which time they're supposed to "meet, mate, have offspring and die." As they rail against a cruel fate (and reel off all sorts of insect jokes, some funnier than others), we realize that Ives hasn't made even the smallest attempt to draw a parallel with humans and their also-far-too-short span of years. Result: these unmetaphorical mayflies and their one-liners get old awfully fast.

Next comes the least successful sketch of the evening, a parody of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre called "The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage." Suffice it to say that the mystery isn't mysterious, and that it's difficult to satirize a genre that's virtually a satire of itself.

"The Universal Language" follows and is almost as tedious as "Twicknam." Here we see a young woman (nicely played by Ami Sallee Corley) who has signed up to learn an Esperanto-like language from an over-eager charlatan (Swan at his best). The bizarre language that this tutor teaches lends itself to pun after pun, but the sketch has no real point and one tires swiftly of the wordplay.

Finally, "Words, Words, Words" is about an experiment on three chimpanzees (beastly indeed, thanks to Norton, Corley and Swan): If left alone with three typewriters, will they eventually compose Hamlet? Again, this is a sketch that belongs on the comics page; as a play, demanding our time, it's just too little too often.

If the scripts used in Mere Mortals aren't always Ives' best, still the American Stage production — all-star cast included — is usually tip-top. Paul Potenza's direction is crisp in every scene but "Twicknam." He's especially good with the mayflies in "Time Flies" and the lovers in "The Green Hill." Alan Loyd's attractive set puts a felicitously distorted map of the world on the floor and backdrop (where it hangs from metal girders), and Roz Potenza's costumes range from the appropriate (the workmen in "Mere Mortals") to the hilarious (the mayflies in "Time Flies").

Another successful aspect of the production is Dickie Corley's sound design, which transports us to a noisy, crowded café, or to a PBS series, as the case demands. I wish more directors would understand the scene-setting possibilities of good sound design like Corley's.

And I wish we had more opportunities to experience Ives' plays — his best plays, anyway. When this writer shines, he engages our intellects and emotions, makes us laugh and helps us see. And he does so more efficiently than almost any other American playwright.

This show's a mixed bag. But it at least whets the appetite.

And it reminds us that David Ives, even when he falters, is an American original.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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