Mere Mortals

Organic Theater Company

By Jack Helbig

One of the benefits of living in an uninformed age is that it’s relatively easy to establish your credentials as an intellectual comedian. All you have to do is drop a few big names in your jokes, preferably thinkers your audience has heard of but not read (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre) or famous 20th-century artists or writers (Picasso, Mailer, Stein) your audience may know a little better, if not well, and about whom they have strong opinions. Voila: instant Aristophanes.

Woody Allen has been doing this for years, transforming his simpleminded takes on existentialism and Ingmar Bergman into hours of moviegoing fun. More recently Steve Martin has staked his claim to this territory, recycling theatrical ideas that were hip before your mother was born and getting credit as a fresh new voice in American theater. But unlike Aristophanes, Swift, Wilde, Shaw, or any of the real heavyweight comic writers in the Western tradition, Allen and Martin would never offend their affluent audience’s sensibilities or challenge its worldview. It’s much easier to play to people’s prejudices and pocket the dough.

David Ives is the most recent pretender to this pseudointellectual throne–or pseudointellectual heir to this pretend throne. But if the Organic Theater Company’s dreary Chicago-premiere production of his 1997 show Mere Mortals is any indication, he’s not even the pretender he pretends to be.

Born in Chicago and educated at Yale, Ives has built a career on writing smarmy miniature comedy sketches (which he passes off as one-acts) that appeal to theatergoers’ intellectual pretensions. Like Allen and Martin, he packs his work with references to whatever cultural ticket was hot last season (or the season before that): Philip Glass, Edgar Degas, David Mamet. His list of dropped names differs slightly from Martin’s and Allen’s, but then Ives belongs to a younger generation and his pantheon of hipness is different from theirs. A baby boomer, Ives wouldn’t be caught dead joking about Ernest Hemingway, as both Allen and Martin do, because this alcoholic, sexist, testosterone-poisoned great white hunter no longer has the cachet he had for our parents. But as Hemingway’s declining fortunes illustrate, the downside of chronic name-dropping is that, unless you’re especially clever, jokes based on whoever is famous and cool grow old fast.

The material in Mere Mortals, first produced only a year and a half ago in New York, already feels old. Part of the problem is that the majority of its six sketches are older works that didn’t make it into Ives’s earlier collection, All in the Timing, which established his reputation when it was first produced in New York in 1993. Ives’s ten-minute send-up of Mamet here, “Speed-the-Play,” is at least six years old: I saw a version of it in the early 90s at Strawdog, a good year before All in the Timing. Frankly it seemed funnier then, partly because the material was new to me–Ives doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings. But more important, back then Mamet was hipper and his eccentric style was parodied less frequently.

The deeper problem with Ives’s work, however, is that he hasn’t yet outgrown the “look how clever I am” stage every talented playwright goes through. Ives has a superb sense of structure and of how to use stage conventions to collapse time. In Mere Mortals’ “Foreplay,” for example, he jump-cuts between three similar couples on miniature-golf dates. Or maybe they’re three successive dates with the same womanizing cad. But after winning us over with his stylistic brilliance, juxtaposing and overlapping the characters’ conversations, Ives has nothing much to say about these upper-middle-class suburbanites beyond the obvious, rather coldhearted observation that they’re virtual clones.

Ives also gets a lot of mileage out of the old modernist trick of mixing high and low cultural references to create a work more lively than a treatise but smarter than your average Hanna-Barbera cartoon. In the one-act “Mere Mortals,” Ives gives us three working stiffs right out of The Honeymooners, then has them speak to one another like college professors. This comic turn yields some easy laughs, but when it comes time for Ives to do something more than just make us laugh, he abruptly ends the sketch. Likewise in “Dr. Fritz” Ives uses dozens of old vaudeville bits about kooky doctors and hapless patients to suggest a statement about identity and the existence of God, then settles for a quick laugh and fast exit line.

Unfortunately Ives is an intellectual tease, promising more than he can deliver and delivering material that pretends to be better than it is. In the right hands, however, an Ives play can at least be fun. Sadly, Mere Mortals is a typical Touchstone–I’m sorry, Organic–production, which means that no effort has been spared to make it the most mediocre production humanly possible.

Ina Marlowe didn’t direct this one, but she might as well have, because William Pullinsi’s dinner-theater staging is no better than what she could have cooked up. At least Marlowe wouldn’t have directed Ives’s admittedly witty and well-written material as if it had come from some vulgar sub-Carol Burnett variety show, full of telegraphed lines and comedic stereotypes: the construction workers in “Mere Mortals” sound as if they’ve been lifted from a bad TV commercial.

Pullinsi actually makes Ives’s material seem shallower and less funny than it is. No one in his right mind would call “Degas, C’est Moi”–Ives’s trifle about a sweet New Yorker who decides on a whim to be Edgar Degas–a deep play. But Ives does manage to strike a few deep notes here and there, as when his hero begins to feel alienated from the world because no one will play along with him–or even notices he’s playing. In Pullinsi’s staging these deeper, more touching moments are all but lost.

Not that the director deserves all the blame for the show’s failure: his cast seems totally lost in Ives’s world. Except for Linda Kimbrough, everyone is too obviously trying to be funny–making funny faces, striking funny poses, and hammering Ives’s punch lines so hard they break. By contrast, Kimbrough plays the lines like a master, all subtlety and nuance. When the vaudevillian “Dr. Fritz” calls for her to be a little silly, she’s just goofy enough to get laughs. When the material begs to be underplayed, as when she emcees “Speed-the-Play,” Kimbrough falls in line, adding just a pinch of shtick.

I haven’t always been appreciative of Kimbrough’s talents in the past, but Mere Mortals has made a believer of me. With a few more like her in the show, it might have been palatable. As it is, all of Ives’s flaws–his glib wit, devotion to whatever’s current, and almost pathological inability to look beneath the surface of things–are blindingly obvious.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.