“I’m a big believer that theatre needs to celebrate and bring people together, to celebrate human existence,” says director John Rando. “Comedy can be as biting and intelligent and thought-provoking as a gut wrenching, monolithic drama.”
Certainly Rando has been carrying the banner for cathartic laughter this year. In January he staged an evening of six short David Ives plays, Lives of the Saints, in Philadelphia. In April his production of Peter Ackerman’s Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight opened at the Promenade Theatre. In May, he revitalized Comden & Green mirth, with music by Jule Styne, for Encores’ presentation of Do Re Mi, with Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Randy Graff. Most recently, at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, he added his touch to the rarely seen George S. Kaufman-Marc Connelly Merton of the Movies. And, in December, the 38-year-old director winds up the year with Neil Simon’s latest play, The Dinner Party, which will star John Ritter, Henry Winkler, and Veanne Cox.
Right now, though, Rando is restaging Lives of the Saints, with two new replacement plays, for the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. The new version opens on Aug. 18. Rando, who directed Mere Mortals and Others at Primary Stages in 1997, enjoys working with “the whimsical music” of Ives. Coincidentally, both playwright and director owe differing debts to a master of American comedy: George S. Kaufman. Ives has cited Kaufman as an influence on his work. Rando, fresh from Merton, confirms the parallels in “his acerbic wit, his wonderful, biting sense of humor, and an intellectual capacity that is simultaneously very bright and also kind of vaudevillian.” Babel in Arms, one of the plays that premieres in the BTF version of Lives of the Saints, echoes Kaufman’s vaudeville roots, says Rando. “It has great banter between two construction workers from the year 900 B.C., and they’re carrying this very heavy stone, and they can’t quite speak well enough to communicate with each other. Anyway, they set this stone down, and what they’ve done is they’ve put down the first stone to the Tower of Babel.” Ives employs “earthy humor” that Kaufman would have recognized (though not used) to talk about “the birth of language and how language brings simultaneously dissension as well as communication,” he says.
Ironically, Kaufman was also Rando’s introduction to Encores. He directed the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, which had a book by Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, for the 1998 season. While he was working on that, someone told him, “You know, there’s a play you should look at: Merton of the Movies.” When Rando read it, one scene in particular captivated him.
“A young guy from Illinois goes to Hollywood to try to make it into serious movies, but he ends up, unknowingly, being a brilliant comic, and he hates comedy,” explains Rando. “There’s a marvelous scene where he gets his first job, and he has to cross to a table and pick up a book. That’s all he has to do, and he fails at it. He fails at it miserably several times. He gets caught in the carpet. He falls over. He knocks a chair. He can’t get through the door -- all wonderful sorts of obstacles that keep him from just going and picking up this book. In front of the entire movie crew and the director, he is finally humiliated. Everyone leaves. He’s left alone onstage, with the book on the table, on the movie set, and by himself he finally figures out how simply to walk and pick up a book and look at it. “It’s that thing that every actor, writer, director -- everyone in the arts -- goes through, that sense of ‘I want to do this so bad, but can I really do it? Do I have the skill? Do I have the talent? Will anyone ever notice?’ That scene was both very funny to me and quite moving. That’s why I wanted to do the play.” Like Lives, he says, he’d like very much to remount Merton for New York.
But any such prospect will have to wait until after Simon’s comedy, a work that Rando says breaks new ground for the author. Set in the private dining room of a posh restaurant in Paris, the intermissionless play of roughly 90 minutes is about three divorced couples who “don’t know that their ex spouses are coming to this dinner party. So, as they gradually arrive, they’re completely shocked to find they’re going to be locked in a room with each other. It’s a wonderful comic and searing look at divorce and marriage.” Unlike some directors who prefer dead playwrights, Rando is delighted to have the dramatist at hand during the rehearsal process. “Neil Simon is not only an extraordinary writer, but he truly understands acting,” says Rando. “And he can write so well when the actor and the text match.”
That’s a theme he repeats in talking about Lives of the Saints. Although the director-playwright relationship is crucial, says Rando, equally as important is that four of the five actors in the BTF production were also in Philadelphia and have performed Ives before. “We know that they know the work as well as we do,” he says. “They know what makes sense and what feels right, and what doesn’t, so we listen to them. It’s a wonderful collaborative effort. It’s really like a little comic ensemble.”
Although Ives has declared, “I’m a troublemaker. I like to create problems,” those problems are nourishing for actors and directors alike, says Rando. “We just keep challenging each other.... The title play, called Lives of the Saints, has a wonderful idea of these two Polish women in the basement of a church, and they’re cooking this extremely elaborate funeral breakfast for a friend who’s passed away, and there are only, like, 12 people at the funeral. David’s whole scheme is that there is no kitchen. There is nothing on the stage. It’s just the two actors and sound.... It’s one of the problems that you love, because you have to answer it theatrically. And I think, for the audience, that’s why they come and see a David Ives play.”
Whether Lives of the Saints will reappear in New York after its run in Stockbridge is uncertain, he says. “We decided to have a good time in the Berkshires and to see how it turns out. There’s always hope that it will have a future, but for now our mission is to enjoy ourselves, and to put these on up there. And what the future holds, we’ll see.”