A Conversation With Playwright David Ives, the Mind Behind All in the Timing
By Harry Haun
Playbill catches up with playwright David Ives, respected for his Venus in Fur, New Jerusalem, All in the Timing, Encores! concerts and adaptations of European classics — and that new show with Stephen Sondheim.
Although he already had two full-length plays running at Circle Rep, David Ives really arrived on the New York theatre scene in installments in the late '80s, sprinkling his witticisms around in the form of one-act plays at assorted festivals about town. When he gathered them up into a goofy six-pack on how we communicate and labeled it All in the Timing, it was "Open Sesame" to a long run.
That was 1993, this is 2013 — time for a 20th anniversary reprise of All in the Timing — so Ives' original sponsor, Primary Stages, is putting the show through the hoops again Jan. 23-March 17, in a new production directed by John Rando, the Urinetown Tony winner, and starring Eric Clem, Jenn Harris, Liv Rooth and a couple of rowdies fresh from Peter and the Starcatcher, Carson Elrod and Matthew Saldivar.
Two decades have taken author Ives in different directions — from Encores! key wordsmith to refried French farce to Nina Arianda, who won a Tony for Venus in Fur.
Here, he stops to reassess where he has been and where he is going.
Can you believe you've reached this age where you're being revived?
It's been surprising fun to go back to these plays. I thought it might be hard because I haven't done anything like this where I've revisited something after this length of time — and something that was so special because, at the time, no theatre in town accepted All in the Timing except Primary Stages. It had been turned down by every theatre in town.
I want names.
Also, these plays are not the kind of thing I'm writing anymore. I sorta stopped writing short plays in any serious way years ago, so it's interesting to see what I was doing back then and what I had on my mind.
Each one of these little plays were a little education in some particular aspect of theatre. The Universal Language is about how far you can go with people speaking gibberish. Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread — how much of a musical you can write in six minutes without having an orchestra. Each one of these was a challenge, and it's been nothing but fun revisiting them (knock wood).
The three chimpanzees trying to write Hamlet was called what?
I saw those at Manhattan Punch Line. I'm just so sorry it's not here anymore.
Did you migrate to Ensemble Studio Theatre, which is known for one-acts?
I remember when I wrote Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread — it was written entirely in rhythm and laid out on four columns on the page — so I was completely frightened that [Punch Line co-founder and artistic director] Steve Kaplan wouldn't do a play written in rhythm. I took it in rather trepidatiously and said, "Steve, I've got a new play." He took it out of my hands and said, "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread. I'll do it," and he put it in the "In" pile. It was as easy as that. It was only later on he realized he had accepted a play written in rhyme.
Was the difficult thing about getting All in the Timing done because it was an anthology?
God, it's sure a lost art, isn't it?
Two things from that show have stayed with me all these years. The first, from Variations on the Death of Trotsky, was the image of Trotsky going about his business, oblivious to the fact he has a mountain-climber's ax in his head.
The other thing was Sure Thing. How many times has that happened? You're on a date, and you say the wrong thing, and you want a retake. In your play, a bell rings and the scene starts again. It's a totally inspired idea. I don't know why someone didn't do that before. It was always there. You just picked it up and ran with it.
I do know your style and interest in theatre has changed in terms of what you're writing now. It truly has matured. You could have gone through life Mr. Smart-Ass.
How did you find the direction you wanted to go? Because it is such a sharp right turn. You could have gone anywhere.
I also, at the same time, was starting to adapt for Encores! It was an education in theatre. It bent my mind in a totally different way.
As I got older, my attention was taken by, let's say, subjects that were less apt to look "clever" — like the excommunication of Spinoza [New Jerusalem] or, I don't know, pornographic sadomasochistic Austrian novels from 1870 [Venus in Fur]. You know, you get pushed off in various directions by things.
Were you pushed or pulled?
Did you ever see "Groundhog Day," the Bill Murray comedy where he's a TV weatherman caught in a time loop and keeps repeating the same day again and again?
Right. Sondheim once said he wanted to do a musical of that, and I asked him about it. I said, "Were you kidding?" And he said no, but he had decided not to. But it reminded me so much of Sure Thing — the business of starting over again. Recently he said he wanted to collaborate with you because of an idea he got watching one of your plays. Did he elaborate on what that was?
How did the two of you actually start collaborating?
When was this?
I've read that he's done 20 or 30 minutes of music — and now he's on his second song? Is he writing out of sequence?
And you've turned in the book?
Have you moved on to another play?
You read it in the original French? Are you used to doing that?
I just always read the French over and over and over again, take a lot of notes. Usually, I spend a couple of months just taking notes and getting the structure right. Then, I sit down and start work on it.
Is that the only other language you work in?
Is that how you found Venus in Fur? I certainly read Venus in Fur in German — and read it a lot in German when I was working on that play, going back to the original — but the problem with German is that there are not a lot of plays in German that I would like to work on. The French have a whole raft of comedies that have never been translated, and I'm sort of exploring those.
You know, your wit has upstaged your language skills. This is a side of you I didn't know about — and it's been going on all this time?
Is there a parallel between your foreign-language translations and your Encores! musical adaptations?
Of the Encores! you've done, which ones are you proudest of, and why?
Did you ever hear from Arthur Laurents about it?
Back to The Metromaniacs: what does the title mean?
That's for the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, where I've done two French comedies already. One was School for Lies, my version of The Misanthrope, and it got a great production here from Classic Stage with Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer, directed by Walter Bobbie. It is, by far, my best play.
Was it the Moliere influence that makes you think that?
I also did for the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington The Liar, which is adapted from Pierre Corneille. It's going to be done here as a reading Feb. 11 by Red Bull Theatre, and there's a theatre that has been wanting to do it here for a couple of years. Finding the right personnel is part of the problem.
Last season I did a Jean-Francois Regnard play called The Heir Apparent, which had Carson Elrod in it, and he won a Washington acting award for it. He is, I think, one of our most brilliant comedians. I think he is as funny as anybody in New York right now or in this country right now. It amazes me that he's not a household word. In Heir Apparent, he was sublime. He played a servant who impersonates three different people — two men and one woman — and was extraordinary, right at the top of his game.
It's a delight to have him in All in the Timing. He also did A Flea in Her Ear up at Williamstown, directed by John Rando. He played the nephew with the speech impediment, and he stopped the show with it.
Those are the French plays that I've worked on. I do love working in verse because it's sort of an extra little challenge to compress language into iambic pentameter and use couplets, which is not usually fun but I try to make it as much "fun" as I can.
What is the next new show of yours that will be opening here?
How many have you got lined up for New York?
I wish you well with all of that. It's been interesting to grow old with you.
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