A playwright named Shakespeare once wrote that "brevity is the soul of wit." A playwright named David Ives has rigorously followed that advice with consistently comic results.
Four years ago, with All in the Timing, Ives combined six short one-act plays into one hilarious Off-Broadway hit. Now he has done it again, with Mere Mortals at the John Houseman Theatre on West 42nd St. Peter Marks in The New York Times called it a "madcap evening" of "six fast and ferociously funny comedies."
Ives, a tall and slender 47-year-old with graying hair and dark-rimmed glasses that cannot conceal a twinkle in his eyes, says there are several reasons that he chooses to write short.
"I have a short attention span," he says with a laugh. "And besides, a lot of ideas I have are not ideas for full-length plays. It's an old stage truism: Always know when to get off. But it's also that I love the elegance of the form, in the same way that I love the sonnet. I don't read the Iliad very much these days, but I read Shakespeare's sonnets a lot."
The six plays in Mere Mortals involve a wide variety of subjects and settings: a battle of the sexes on a miniature golf course; the fantasy lives of three construction workers on a girder 50 stories high; a pair of mayflies on a pond who seize the day their only day; a scatologically riotous riff on the plays of David Mamet; a sick tourist visiting a doctor's office in a strange foreign land; an unemployed and depressed New Yorker who decides to become Edgar Degas for a day.
"I have this intense fear of banality," Ives says. "One of my satisfactions about Mere Mortals is that the plays are all set in unusual places. Most of what I write is about not boring myself. If I find that I wouldn't want to see what I'm writing, I stop."
The six plays were written over several years some are new, some have been performed elsewhere. But they have connecting themes. "I didn't realize there was anything holding them together until my director, John Rando, and I started putting them together," Ives says. "One of the themes is mortality that's where the title comes from. And another is identity who people are. The hard hats on the girder all claim to be other people; a man decides to be someone else Degas." The origins of his ideas are varied. Foreplay or: the Art of the Fugue, set on the miniature golf course, originally was set in an office, with people coming in and, fuguelike, repeating and doing variations on what the others are talking about.
"I liked the musical idea of that," he says, "but then I thought it wasn't very sexy. And I always find that plays get immensely more interesting when there is just a little bit of sex. So I made the characters couples. And then I decided that couples in an office is boring. And then I thought of a miniature golf course, where I could use a lot of sexual double entendres."
The title play about those construction workers and their other, make-believe lives -- was born one day when he was visiting Princeton, N.J., and read about a man there who claimed to be Charles Lindbergh's son, who was kidnapped and found dead in the 1930's.
"I immediately knew there was a play in that," he says. "I wrote it down on a scrap of paper 'Lindbergh baby' and the idea hung around in my notebook for the longest time. Then I was passing a construction site where two workers were sitting eating lunch. They were deep in conversation, and I wondered what they were talking about, so I edged by them slowly to listen, and it became clear that one was actually a part-time actor. He had this other life, and you would never have suspected it. And somehow I tied that up to the Lindbergh baby idea."
The origins of Time Flies, about those courting mayflies, are clear -- he began it several years ago when he read that the insects live only for a day, "and I wondered what you do if you have only a day to live." The play was finished, appropriately for a romance of a sort, on his honeymoon in Mexico last February. "Every morning my wife [illustrator Martha Stoberock] would sit by the pool and I would work on the play for a few hours."
The idea for Degas, C'est Moi, however, came in a more mysterious way. "I woke up one morning," Ives says, "and opened my eyes, and I thought of a sentence: 'I decided to be Degas for a day.' I think it was the D's -- decided, Degas, day. And it was like a light went on in my head that said, 'That's a wonderful idea.' I wrote it at first as an article for the Times's Sunday Magazine."
Ives was born in a working-class area of Chicago and knew from an early age that writing would be his life. "My neighborhood wasn't the sort of environment that usually puts out playwrights, though David Mamet grew up not very far away," he says. "It was very blue collar. If you grow up in that kind of world, reading is a window to all these other universes, so I was a voracious reader."
He wrote his first stories science fiction in the sixth grade and was soon "bitten by the theatre bug." He wrote plays in high school, had his plays performed in college at Northwestern University and later went to Yale Drama School.
"I didn't set out to write for a living," he says. "I set out to write because I loved it. In the theatre, you have to write for love because you can't make a fortune in it. And the nice thing is I still like to write whatever I want. I love the feeling of sitting down with an idea like the mayflies on a date and just seeing where it takes me. The fun of that is unparalleled."
And so, he says, he would "like to continue exactly as I have been haphazardly stumbling forward and writing." He has written long -- his full-length play Red Address was performed at Second Stage this year but he foresees a passel of one-acts in his future.
"Long plays seem to work best when they're attached to realism," he says, "and I think realism is the bane of the theatre. I hate realism. When I look at a stage and see a room that looks like a room and people telling me their real lives, I turn off."
Ives's real life is lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where his prime avocation is music. "What I would truly love to do for the rest of my life," he says, "is lie on the floor and listen to music -- especially the symphonies of Mahler."
Mahler? For a devotee of the short form? Well, the symphonies are kind of long, Ives says -- but then they're not exactly comedies.
-- By Mervyn Rothstein