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Jewish Journal

Watch Your Language

Theater: Alarums and Excursions

by Charles Marowitz

June 18, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Jewish Journal theater critic Charles Marowitz writes from Malibu.

Watch Your Language

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, with front-runners such as T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry and Archibald Macleish, there was a concerted effort to revive language in the American theater. The buzzword was "heightened speech" and, although all of these writers essentially wrote verse, producers tried to steer clear of the word "poetry." They sensed that American theatergoers would recoil from any attempts to have anything as exotic as that foisted upon them. Just as, at around the same period, when they were risking capital on shows like "The Most Happy Fella" and the early works of Gian Carlo Menotti, they avoided the word "opera." Music-drama seemed a safer rubric.

That movement didn't amount to very much. T.S. Eliot's far earlier verse play "Murder In The Cathedral" was perhaps its finest flowering and "The Cocktail Party" with Alec Guiness in the lead was visibly chic for a few seasons. Fry's "The Lady's Not For Burning" was a sophisticated novelty which stirred the pot for other verse-experiments but Macleish's "J.B." didn't exactly enflame the town. By the '60s, with Method Realism solidly entrenched in all English-speaking theaters, the whole movement kind of sputtered out.

But the desire to restore the supremacy of poetic language (which dominated English theater from the 16th to the 18th centuries and gave us rich harvests from writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and Dryden) has always been a cherished hope among a few theatrical stalwarts and it is that hope that seems to underlie David Ives' linguistically playful series of short plays entitled "All In the Timing" now arrived at the Geffen Playhouse after a successful run off-Broadway and elsewhere.

Groundbreaking as they are alleged to be, there is something of old-styled revue about Mr. Ives' sketches that contain an ingenious parody of the work of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, a fanciful series of riffs on how two young people try to pick each other up at a coffeehouse, an item about an ingenious con-man (not unlike Mr. Ives himself) who gains advocates for a new universal language, a surreal restaurant encounter between two men and a waitress that maligns the characters of American cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, an extended "hairy dog" story about three laboratory chimps trying to re-create literary masterworks, and an historical oddity about Leon Trotsky's axe-murder in Mexico.

Above, Tom McGowan in "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," an episode from "All in the Timing." Below, Steve O'Connor and Elizabeth DuVall in "Good."

More unique than his language experiments is Mr. Ives' theatrical style. Whereas other writers try to refine their material from one draft to the next and give you something like a finished product, Ives delivers all the variations simultan-eously and lets you decide your own preference. This technique works fairly well in the short haul as in "Sure Thing" (the coffeehouse pick-up sketch), but feels laborious when he rings three or four variations on Who Slammed the Ice-Pick into Comrade Trotsky's Skull. The unqualified success of the evening is the Glass-Wilson take-off that is theatrically bold, satirically on-target and imaginatively mounted by director John Rando. The most ambitious piece is unquestionably "The Universal Language" in which the author's portmanteau words based on French, German, be-bop, slang and acoustical puns almost succeed in creating a fresh, new diction of their own. (e.g. "Harvard U" (how are you), "Of corset" (of course). Rando's production is remorselessly frolicsome, its two most ebullient performers being Tom McGowan and Kimberly Williams.

I applaud Ives' instincts to cleanse the theater of mundane, naturalistic reflections on our mundane, naturalistic lives and to shoot for something higher and more stylized, but his sense of comedy is often oafish and doesn't keep pace with his technical ingenuity, and his subject-matter is almost as earthbound as that of the conventional theater he claims to abhor. Behind the zaniness of Dada (which Ives' work forcibly brings to mind), there was a philosophic attitude both to life and art that gave point and purpose to the linguistic experiments of Jarry, Vitrac, Tzara and Breton. Ives' ingenuity does seem to be "All In The Timing." Would it were also in the content.

A very "diffident scuttle of Frisch" (to fall into Ivesian vernacular) is C.P. Taylor's "Good" at Theatre West. Cecil Taylor was a cuddly, frizzy-haired Glaswegian Jew and dyed-in-the-wool Socialist who spent most of his life selling phonograph records to music shops around Scotland. His musical obsessions, like those of his fellow Brits Peter Barnes, Peter Nichols and Denis Potter, regularly wormed their way into his plays. I directed his very first production, "Happy Days Are Here Again," at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre and developed a strong affection for his gentle, sardonic humor. "Good," his most mature work, demonstrates how even the most unspeakable evils can be rationalized and ultimately justified so long as personal emoluments sweeten the mix. Taylor's play, one of the most sympathetic analyses of the Nazi character written by a Jew, survives despite a company of anemic actors and a plodding, lusterless production.

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