“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Attributed to Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud’s iconic phrase might be an apt descriptor for David Ives’ “Lives of the Saints” currently running at Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street. When Mr. Ives tackles the vicissitudes of the human condition (tackles the lives of the saints) as he does in the satisfying “It’s All Good,” he is at his best. Unfortunately this new collection of Ives’ tales contains mostly physical comedy, repetitious word play (double entendre, innuendo, etc.), and enough sight gags to challenge a “Three Stooges” gig. And that is fine if that is all the audience expects and desires – which seemed to be the case at a recent showing of these six shorts.
The ensemble cast gives its all in each of the six vignettes; however, often the material does not challenge their considered cumulative craft. While one might argue that “The Goodness of Your Heart” raises enduring questions about the meaning of friendship and the title piece “Lives of the Saints” hints at the richness and durability of faith and the faithful, “Soap Opera” is just all fluff and silliness and like “Babel’s in Arms” could have been eliminated from the program.
In “The Goodness of Your Heart,” separated by only six houses neighbors Del (Arnie Burton) and Marsh (Rick Holmes) get bogged down in a discussion of what friendship is and what friends should be able to expect of one another. These are two enduring questions worth exploring; however, Mr. Ives seems not to know when to cease and desist and just let the piece settle into the hearts of the audience. The best line of this vignette might be Marsh’s “Intrapersonal problems can obliterate you.” The second offering in Act I “Soap Opera” is jam packed full of laundry-related double entendre and chronicles the life of the Maypole repairman (Carson Elrod) and his lifelong infatuation with the washing machine (Liv Rooth) that has haunted him from childhood. Although a lightweight trope for issues of transference and projection, this piece leaves the audience wanting more. The final short of Act I is “Enigma Variations” which seems to be a doppelganger for Ives’ earlier “All in the Timing” just not as satisfying. Here two Bills (Arnie Burton and Rick Holmes) and two Bebes (Liv Rooth and Kelly Hutchinson) play and replay (and reply) a scene in a therapist’s office. Carson Elrod as nurse Fifi rescues the piece from attempting to have some hidden meaning.
The collection’s best vignette is Act II’s “It’s All Good.” Here ex-seminarian Stephen (Rick Holmes) has the opportunity to travel “back in time” to explore what he and wife Leah (Kelly Hutchinson) “might have become” if things had turned out differently. On a trip back to his Chicago roots, Stephen meets his “past self” Steve (Carson Elrod) and the “past self” of his wife Amy (Liv Rooth). It is clear that this brilliant band of actors has waited all afternoon for something they could dig into and create a quartet of authentic and honest performances. If only Mr. Ives had provided this level of writing throughout the six shorts that make up “Lives of the Saints” and particularly in the drawing room comedy “Life Signs” and the title short “Lives of the Saints” which round out the second act.
That said, “Lives of the Saints” is an entertaining two hours of exploring the human condition and worth the visit.