When Juan Cejas resigned as artistic director of ACME Acting Company in November 1994, the innovative -- yet struggling -- theater group seemed to be facing its last stand. Sure, the troupe had an eight-year history of acclaimed productions, from 1978's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea through 1994's Jeffrey. It also had debts, no permanent home, and now no leader A conditions that would have brought many small theaters to their knees. But lighting director Betsy Pearl Cardwell was not about to be felled. She decided to put ACME's house in order, working with quiet determination to raise money and to develop new projects. Her efforts have paid off. The theater's first production in a year and a half debuted last month at the Little Stage on Miami Beach: an impeccably paced, bracingly smart, and terrifically funny version of David Ives's All in the Timing, directed by long-time troupe member Barbara Lowery and featuring five company veterans.
In his zany and slyly sophisticated collection of six one-act plays, Chicago-based playwright Ives uses language to manipulate reality, perception, time, and the outcome of relationships. His subjects, including world literature, linguistics, twentieth-century history, and music, veer off into the stratosphere at every other bend. Yet this wordsmith serves up the metaphysical with a generous twist of playful lunacy. You'll hardly have time to catch all the esoteric references because you'll be too busy laughing.
In the evening's opener, "Sure Thing," a woman attempting to read Faulkner at a table in a crowded cafe encounters a man out alone. An off-stage bell interrupts their fruitless attempts to connect, signaling the actors to shift moods and approaches until romance blooms. Ellen Rae Littman and Peter Paul DeLeo are the witty quick-change artists in this exuberantly mordant take on modern coupling, in which love means having the exact same tastes in books, movies, political parties, and Ivy League schools.
"Words, Words, Words" features a trio of chimps corralled by researchers for the purpose of attempting to prove the old saw that three monkeys typing ad infinitum will sooner or later produce Hamlet. Hilariously dressed as toddlers by costume designer Allison O'Neil, Milton (Ale Weinberg), Kafka (Littman), and Swift (John Baldwin) quote extemporaneously from masterpieces such as Paradise Lost and Hamlet itself. They also whine about writer's block, just as real writers do, while preening, snuggling with each other, and swinging from a tire, remarkably like actual chimps.
Continuing his pursuit of linguistic delights, Ives invents his very own dialect in the tongue-twisting, mind-bending "The Universal Language," in which Don (Weinberg), proprietor of a school that purports to teach a global language called Unamundo, meets Dawn (Maritza Gonzalez), a guileless woman with a stutter who comes to him for lessons. As Don riffs up and down a scale of made-up words mixed with vaguely recognizable phrases, wide-eyed Dawn speaks for the audience when she says, "It's strange how much I understand." Soon the nonsensical dialect is tripping off her tongue as well.
In "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread," Ives turns the benign act of going to the bakery into a parody of avant-garde music and performance art. Philip Glass (DeLeo), his ex-lover (Littman), her friend (Gonzalez), and a baker (Baldwin) perform a fractured song and dance, bemoaning, with deadpan seriousness, lost love and the slipperiness of time.
After seeing the pointedly observant "The Philadelphia" you may never view having a bad day in quite the same way. An exasperated Mark (Weinberg) confides to his friend Al (DeLeo) that no matter how hard he tries, he can not get anything he asks for, whether it's a copy of the Daily News or pastrami in a kosher deli. According to Al, Mark has fallen into a "Philadelphia" A a black hole inside reality where you can get what you want only by asking for its opposite. Al, on the other hand, is in a "Los Angeles." His girlfriend left him that morning. No big deal. His boss calls and fires him. No sweat. Except, suddenly, Al finds himself in Mark's Philadelphia. And panic sets in.
"Variations on the Death of Trotsky" rounds out the sextet. Every time an off-stage bell rings, the Russian revolutionary (Baldwin) re-enacts a different scenario of his death by assassination at the hands of his gardener (DeLeo). True to Ives's sense of the absurd, Trotsky has an ax with its handle sticking out embedded in his head throughout the entire piece.
Such postmodern slapstick provides a perfect vehicle for ACME's return from its year-and-a-half sabbatical. The inventive combination of physical and intellectual comedy in each of the half-dozen pieces affords the troupe a ready-made showcase for their considerable talents. Under Lowery's keen direction, the plucky ensemble -- all equally impressive -- seems to revel in the sheer joy of performing together, much as Ives revels in the joy of pushing the boundaries of language in these brilliantly constructed pieces. One of the most satisfying theater experiences of this season, All in the Timing should not be missed.
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As a member of a theatrical royal family dating (on his mother's side) back to the Elizabethan stage, Shakespearean actor and matinee idol John Barrymore was truly "born in a trunk." That phrase refers to the children of actors, particularly those who enter the profession themselves. It evokes an image of family members hauling their luggage from performance to performance, stopping only long enough to allow Mom to deliver a baby in a hotel room or a train station. It describes the workaday, unglamorous side of show business, and the phrase's unsentimental realism jibes perfectly with the image of Barrymore crafted by David M. Kwiat in his moving one-man show John Barrymore: Confessions of an Actor.
Kwiat, a theater professor at New World School of the Arts and a 1995 Carbonell Award nominee, performs his solo piece at 3rd Street Black Box, an intimate new space in the back of San Villa Oriental Restaurant in downtown Miami. The show ostensibly opens in 1940, two years before Barrymore's death at age 54, in a dressing room appointed with a vintage steamer trunk, a chaise, and a make-up table. In truth, however, our first glimpse of Barrymore is as a ghost; he's lounging on the chaise in a dressing gown, reading aloud from Goodnight, Sweet Prince, a biography penned after his death by a friend. Barrymore appears to return to the world of the living after this introduction, although the transition from death to life is never clearly made. The ghostly opening, however, proves fitting. Through anecdotes and flashbacks, Kwiat creates a picture of Barrymore as a classic privileged wastrel: a man blessed with talent and opportunity yet filled with self-loathing, a man hell-bent on destroying himself with booze. And, as evidenced by the stories he tells of his marriages and by the surly abuse he hurls at the off-stage boy who gives him his cues, he was also hell-bent on destroying everyone around him.
As Kwiat interprets him, Barrymore had nothing but contempt for the profession he was born to. Equally unenthusiastic, his famous siblings apparently took to the stage by accident of birth as well. Ethel, Kwiat's Barrymore tells us, would have preferred to be a pianist or a novelist, while Lionel (who called acting "the family curse") wanted to be a composer and, in fact, abandoned the theater for several years to paint. Kwiat brings a sense of jaded irony to his subject, both through his dandified performance and by his colorful, image-packed writing. Describing a scene in which the Hollywood writer Charles MacArthur (as inveterate a boozer as Barrymore) fills his pool with elephantine chunks of ice so that he and Barrymore could cool off from a hangover, Kwiat's Barrymore comments, "I felt like a fly in a highball." In another mood, Kwiat evokes the memory of an idyllic childhood summer the famous actor spent on a family farm with his brother. And he hilariously tells the notorious story of how Barrymore played Hamlet so inebriated that he had to run from the stage every few minutes to vomit. The next day, Kwiat's Barrymore reports in a "what-idiots-they-all-are" tone, "They hailed me as the greatest Hamlet of the age."
Kwiat keeps his piece to a mercifully short 45 minutes, presumably because he understands how challenging it is for a single actor to sustain an audience's attention for much longer than that. Yet I wished at times for just a tiny bit more from the piece: perhaps some deeper insight into Barrymore's self-hatred and loneliness, or several more anecdotes about his dissolution. That slight craving aside, I found Confessions of an Actor to be a disturbing, poignant, and tragedy-tinged portrait of a man who, despite his talent, felt as if he were, in Kwiat's words, "a hollow, empty sham.