All in the Timing is a collection of six one-acts that were separately produced over a span of six years, from 1987 to 1993. They share the theme "What If?" What if we could replay the scene in which we might have met the love of our life, and might even now be living happily ever after if only we hadn't said (fill in the blank) or he hadn't been (blankety-blank)? What if there's a state of mind that makes the Twilight Zone look like kindergarten, where everything that can go wrong does, unless by some miracle you can identify it and take appropriate steps to counter its effects? What if you stammered so badly you felt isolated from any kind of meaningful human interaction, and you discovered that a universal language called Unamundo was your key to love, success, and fluent speech?
We're immersed in "What If?" from the moment we settle in at Marin Theatre Company. Huge Roman numerals of an old-fashioned clock face ring the auditorium ceiling, and, as the lights (by Kurt Landisman) fade to half, a crisply attired stage crew sets the scene (costumes are by Laura Hazlett, sets by J.B. Wilson) to the accompaniment of mechanical clockwork sounds (by Don Seaver). It made me think of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, or Buster Keaton clinging to the huge hand of a tower clock.
Indeed, this production owes a great deal to silent film comedies. But instead of providing thrills and laughs via complicated and breathtaking sight gags, Timing, for all its indisputable visual rewards, relies on virtuosity of language and elaborate, perfectly executed wordplay.
The first one-act, Sure Thing, sets the evening's thematic agenda: Two people, meeting by chance in a cafe, are given apparently unlimited opportunities to get acquainted. Every time the romantic negotiation goes astray, a bell rings and the action returns to the point of departure. Betty (Nancy Carlin) is reading Faulkner, which Bill (James Carpenter) either hasn't read (Ding!); didn't like (Ding!); or finds so inspiring he launches into an obnoxious lecture (Ding! Ding!) until they get back on track. Which has nothing whatever to do with Faulkner or any other writer, of course. Still, Faulkner and one's introduction to him provide a useful metaphor: "You have to hit these things at the right moment," they agree. "It's all in the timing." (In a way, Sure Thing is David Ives' version of the movie Groundhog Day, a sweet trifle of a few years ago starring Bill Murray as a television weatherman doomed to relive that dubious holiday over and over until he gets it right.)
Words, Words, Words attempts to play out the premise that monkeys, if left long enough in front of typewriters, will come up with Hamlet. Three chimps -- named Milton (Hector Correa), Kafka (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), and Swift (Carpenter) -- are stuck in a room with their typewriters and a tire swing. They produce such masterpieces as "Kkkkkkkkkkkkk" while pondering the timeless question "What IS Hamlet?" Answers range from unintelligible simian squeaks to "There's a providence that oversees our pages, rough draft them though we may." For all the exuberant puns and hilarious literary references, this is the most physically comic piece of the set. And while all three players clearly revel in the opportunity to roll about in bloomers -- I can't erase the image of Carpenter's skinny white legs sticking out like straws -- Words provides Hector Correa with a comic plum he clearly relishes. He twists his face into standard chimp grimaces until he requests (and is given, courtesy of the unseen scientist-observers) a cigarette. He jabs it between his lips and is instantly transformed into the quintessential hack writer. I laughed myself silly.
If Sure Thing and Words are playgrounds for Ives to explore the elastic properties of great literature, The Universal Language sends him leaping off into the basics of communication. Shy, reticent Dawn (Carlin) meekly presents herself at Don's (Correa) school of Unamundo (read: Esperanto). She's a stutterer and wants to be able to speak fluently. Don, exuberant salesman that he is -- I don't think Correa has ever been better -- pulls her in with the greeting, "Bell jar! Harvard U?" ("Hello! How are you?") She has an uncanny gift for Unamundo, and picks it up almost at once. They chatter away at one another as -- you guessed it -- romance begins to bloom. But here Ives stumbles just a bit. Instead of trusting us to get his point, he lets Dawn and Don fall back into English (that's "John Cleese" in Unamundo) to explain Don's motivation for inventing a universal language: "I believe language is the opposite of loneliness, and if everyone in the world spoke the same language, no one would be lonely." Luckily, it's not long before the enraptured couple goes back to Unamundo. Odd words such as "shtick" and "Tommy Stoppard" fly past us and magically make themselves heard. Correa pumps his way around the stage like a Latino version of Groucho Marx, with Carlin matching him step for step in the plucky tradition of Judy Garland or Ginger Rogers. It's pure comic virtuosity.
The loveliest of the six pieces is Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, a gentle parody of a Glass opera, sung beautifully by the full cast.
The Philadelphia dares to put a name to those mysterious territories of the psyche where one is at the mercy of the universe. If, for no apparent reason, life turns into a disaster, you're in a Philadelphia. Conversely, when disaster is unavoidable but life feels beautiful anyway, that's a Los Angeles. Then, there's the dreaded Cleveland, which is "like death without the advantages."
Finally, The Death of Trotsky takes a zany look at how long it takes intellectuals to catch up to real life. Trotsky (Carpenter) sits at his typewriter, a rock climber's pickax buried in his head. It is the 21st of August, 1940, and he has been mortally wounded for nearly 24 hours. He considers his situation with his wife (Cone), who admits she's found a life burdensome "being married to a major historical figure."
But the message of these short plays, if there is one, is found in the scenes between the scenes, when the lights dim and our attention is directed to the inner workings of the whirring clock. I found myself thinking, "What if you could tinker with the engine that drives your life and reset the timing?" Maybe you'd wind up in a Philadelphia. But maybe you'd be put on a diet of truffles. Speaking fluent Unamundo. Delicious.
All in the Timing runs through April 7 at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley; call 388-5208.