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History Lesson

David Ives Hasn't Learned When to Cut Back on the Cutes

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 4/17/2002

Ancient History By David Ives

David Ives once joked that he writes one-act plays because "with my plays, when the lights go down, at least the audience isn't thinking, Oh, God, two more hours of this." And when it comes to his widely performed one-act collections, that's absolutely true. Ives isn't much for plot, but his clever wordplay, quirky scenarios, and affection for the absurd make his one-acts yummy little pieces of theatrical candy. But like candy, too much of it can be a bad thing.

Ives' two-act Ancient History follows Ruth (Paris Obligin) and Jack (Jeff Tremper), an attractive, witty couple in their mid-30s who call each other by a series of quirky nicknames, listen to opera, and have sex like bunnies. The first act spends an entire hour setting this up. Yup--a whole hour to establish that they are a fun couple with a few issues. She wants to get married. He's anti-marriage. She's Jewish. He's an atheist. And all this is illustrated amid a veritable blizzard of cuddling, cute puns and racy talk. Oh, they're also getting ready for Ruth's birthday party, but that's really neither here nor there.

Sure, Ruth and Jack say a lot of neat things, and any play that references the French term esprit de l'escalier--the witty retorts you think of after the fight is over--is doing something right. But saying neat things wears thin when there isn't much else going on. Ruth and Jack call each other Nick and Nora, referencing the bantering sleuths from the Thin Man series, which Ives' stylized dialogue seems to be trying to invoke. Unfortunately, Obligin's and Tremper's deliveries fall flat, creating the impression that the two actors are simply helping the playwright show off his vocabulary rather than inhabiting two fully actualized characters. Still, the actors have pleasant stage presences and are genuinely likable as the verbose lovebirds, and director Alex Willis staves off the visual monotony inherent in a one-setting show by throwing her actors around the stage and at one another.

Ives also pulls out a convention he perfected in the one-act Sure Thing, which depicts a couple on a first date: Whenever one character makes a conversational faux pas, a bell rings and the characters back up in the conversation and get another chance to do it right. In the one-act, this technique shows Ives at his best, hitting one-liner after one-liner out of the park. Here a bell rings and Jack and Ruth also back up and start again, but the reasons are less clear. There is no obvious misstep or entertaining crack, making it seem like Ives simply didn't know how to get his characters from one point to another, and Willis allows these moments to hang there awkwardly.

Things do pick up significantly in the second half, when Ruth and Jack stop admiring their collective cuteness long enough to have a nice big fight. Ruth asks Jack to marry him, which doesn't sit well with the anti-marrying man, allowing different aspects of the characters and their relationship to come to light. Upping the emotional ante really makes the play move, and Obligin and Temper seem more at home with the drama. In fact, it would probably make up for the lackluster beginning if Ruth didn't become such a hopeless caricature, trading in her first-act feistiness to follow in the grand tradition of female characters who really just want to nag some man into marrying them so they can move to the suburbs, have babies, and become their mothers. Jack, on the other hand, becomes the patron saint of horny manchildren, calling Ruth on her bullshit in a way that is insightful and caring.

Ancient History does have some things to recommend it. Ives' oddball references are fun, and both the playwright and the production win points for realism--the couple's apartment is filled with mismatched Ikea furniture, and Ruth and Jack tell the same stories and use the same phrases repeatedly. I just wish Ives had known when to say, "Cut."

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