Theater Review - All in the timing

Third time mostly a charm for Times Flies

We all owe playwright David Ives a debt of gratitude for reclaiming the comedic sketch from “Saturday Night Live.” The ancient late-night variety show may be pop culture’s most famous vehicle for sketch comedy, but to watch “SNL,” you’d think the art form consists only of innuendoes and catch phrases.

In the seven short plays that comprise Time Flies, currently playing at Horizon Theatre, Ives reaffirms the creative possibilities of the form. Ives isn’t just a playwright, he’s a sketch artist. He concocts conceits of plot or structure that prove delightfully theatrical and, at best, offer bemused insights into the foibles of relationships. Under Ives’ command, the flow of time and the artifice of speech can hinder human connections as much as help.

Time Flies marks Horizon’s third go-round with Ives, following All in the Timing and Mere Mortals, each an evening of six short plays. Of the three, Timing remains Ives’ most ingenious collection and makes Flies look more frivolous by comparison.

Time Flies’ first plays find Ives more pun-drunk than usual. “Enigma Variations” depicts a woman (LaLa Cochran) explaining her problem to a doctor (Brandon J. Dirden). Behind them, another woman and doctor (Minka Wiltz and Anthony Q. Farrell) silently mirror their every action. Ives wittily repeats the setup from multiple points of view and hints at life’s many possibilities, but “Enigma” relies heavily on double-talk like, “Send me the bill, Bill” and “Double-mint?”

“Babel’s in Arms” emphasizes slapstick as it shows two Old Testament working stiffs charged with building the infinitely tall, infinitely wide Tower of Babel. Ives dabbles with the idea that vocabularies were limited before the Tower of Babel spawned multiple languages — the characters use the word “fooker” interchangeably for dozens of nouns.

But “Babel” mostly emphasizes zany teamwork and features a pair of excellent physical comics in Bart Hansard and Farrell, who break into amusingly “macho” end zone dances when they solve problems. Farrell brings an inventive clownishness to his roles, while Hansard has the gravity-defying grace and presence reminiscent of hefty comic actors John Goodman and Curly Howard.

Dirden and Wiltz never prove as innately funny as the rest of the cast, and at times they strain to keep up with the material’s antic level. “The Green Hill” shines a spotlight on them for the least comedic yet most affecting play of the show. Dirden tells Wiltz, his lover, about a green hill that is the peaceful “special place” he sees in his mind’s eye. But when he discovers the hill might be real, he gives up everything else in his life to find it. The couple’s initial warmth turns bittersweet, introducing a sense of melancholy to an evening built on verbal tomfoolery.

In “The Green Hill,” a lofty dream separates two lovers, while another one brings a couple together in “Time Flies” (also featured in Mere Mortals). Hansard and Cochran sport antennae and hairy black tails as amorous, short-lived mayflies on their first date. “Time Flies” transcends its corny gags — “Would you like a stinger? Or a grasshopper?” — when the flies wonder whether life amounts to anything more than breeding or dying. Ultimately, they fly in the face of natural law by embarking on a crazy scheme.

Cochran, the only veteran of Horizon’s three Ives’ shows, brings a tomboyish, uninhibited energy to each of the evening’s seven plays. In “Arabian Nights,” she wears a fake beard as a melodramatic translator for an American tourist (Farrell) and a Middle-Eastern shopkeeper (Wiltz). The interpreter embellishes their innocent remarks like a romantic matchmaker. Tourist: “My name is Norman.” Interpreter: “My name is Sinbad!” Eventually, their attraction makes words superfluous.

“Lives of the Saints” ends the show with a character sketch of two elderly Midwestern women (Cochran and Wiltz) in a church basement preparing food for a funeral. While the actresses mime cooking, the other actors create sound effects like a live radio show. “Saints” doesn’t go so much for laughs, but simply shows a pair of decent souls as they cook and reflect on mortality, thus tending to hungers both physical and spiritual.

Director Jeff Adler sets a snappy pace and demonstrates deep affection for old-fashioned shtick, although “Enigma” and “Arabian” are too frenetic and silly. Time Flies encourages the audience to hiss at corny jokes, but the impulse shouldn’t come up quite so often. The old saying goes that time flies when you’re having fun, but Time Flies often finds Ives having fun at the expense of making us think.