By David Ives
Directed by Daniel Gidron
Presented by the Nora Theatre Company
At Boston Playwrights' Theater, through November 8, 1998

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Mere Mortals", like the more widely produced "All In the Timing", is a set of six thematically connected one acts by David Ives. The Boston Playwrights' Theatre, which is a Boston University facility and home to the school's active play development program, is serving as temporary home-in-exile to the Nora, displaced from its Cambridge home in the Harvard Union.  The atmosphere of the Playwrights' Theatre is cozy, but the performance space is an awkward one, a black shoe box with a shallow stage set in the long dimension and a few long rows of seats set on risers. Susan Zeeman Rogers has built a little gray play machine set for "Mere Mortals" that is a cross between the activity boxes babies are given for sensual stimulation, the ones with the little doors and bells and disappearing mice, and the quaint mechanical clock  in London's Leicester Square that draws tourists to gape at the life size dolls tracking across to strike the hours.  The set is the star of the opener, "Foreplay", appearing as a miniature golf course whereon all six cast members couple up and run through a dating-dance routine to the rhythm of golf terms and sexually fraught remarks.  Cute idea, elegantly patterned by director Daniel Gidron and expertly executed by the whole company, although I found Derek Stearns as Chuck II -- all the guys are called Chuck, and they all say "puck" when they hit their golf balls-- the most persuasive of the putters.

In the next playlet the set is transformed into a construction site, with the three male actors in hard hats, perched high above the city sidewalk munching lunch and sharing secrets.  Richard Snee shines in this one, as a veteran construction worker with a major fantasy life.   Back on the ground-- or rather, in the pond-- for "Time Flies", the set becomes the batchelorette pad of a flitting mayfly: perky Judith McIntyre in a fluffy green cocktail length party dress with gauzy wings and deely-bopper antenna. John Kuntz, an adorably geeky male version of McIntyre's merry mayfly, is invited in to snack on gnat and cuddle up in front of a PBS nature special, which just happens to be broadcasting live from a certain pond..... .

After intermission, Kuntz again as American tourist in some mysterious south of the border trying to connect with "Dr. Fritz", who can cure a case of what ails US.  "Dr Fritz" appears to have crossed over some time since, and the healer is now channeled by Terry Donahoe's street vender.  This particular brush with mortality didn't really work.  The shifting accents, the polyglot puns, the psychic surgery on a torture table -- mostly what came through was flailing about and shouting.  Nevertheless, I found it  a fascinating piece, full of expressionist potential.

"Speed the Play", a Mamet lecture/demonstration, doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the evening's plays.  Those are either "mere" or "mortal".   "Speed the Play" is a Reduced Shakespeare version of the Four Letter Bard's collected works, and it assumes that Mamet, like Shakespeare, is a Monumental Immortal worth cutting down to size.  I don't think Ives' cutting is particularly sharp, but I enjoyed the hell out of the parody anyway.  It gave the entire humomgo cigar wielding cast the opportunity to display slick mametist technique, with special accolades to Sara Shea; and it gave me the chance to release in raucous laughter some of my pent up anti-mametism.  It should be obvious to everybody by now that Mamet is no more than a wretchedly retro raconteur of resentiment-- and it damn well would be, if the scummy little bugger weren't so bleeping good at it.

The final "Mere Mortals" sketch is of a man whose means of dealing with his mid life crisis is to decide that for at least this one bright particular day he will be Edgar Degas-- even if it means he will be disqualified from collecting benefits when he brings that identity with him to the unemployment office.  Richard Snee as pseudo-Degas spends much of the day in the museum, admiring himself, and the rest reveling in his impressionist impressions.  Snee is sad and subtle and charming, mere and very mortal.  The others fill in all the supporting roles, and Gidron shapes the piece with a confident delicacy.

Individually, all the short plays that make up the evening at the Nora Theatre are the amusing products of a distinctive voice and an acute ear.  Any one of them would be a welcome addition to a bill of assorted one acts, especially an evening dominated by the two or three character naturalistic plays about young singles that seem to make up the bulk of the one act scripts that reach production.  But this particular set of six Ives in a row proves rather a surfeit.  The odd Ives cast of mind that takes a stray thought or an idle notion and lets it rip: forward, back, up, down  and around-- investing in variations and inversions of earnest silliness as if it were a key metaphor for Life and Its Meaning or Lack of It-- is a mind cast delightful in improvisation, or welcome as a relief from more pedestrian wrighting.  But even before intermission the Ives quirks become predictable, and within the first few minutes of each subsequent play the pattern of its working out telegraphs itself, while the quality of Ives' word play this time out isn't quite up to supplying the surprises the plotting lacks.   This throws a heavy burden on the actors-- and it was a challenge this particular set of actors relished.  What a lovely time all six of them were having, how joyfully they reached deeper and deeper into their bag of tricks to make the impossible situations and the absurd assumptions work!