Photo: James Leynse

Photo: James Leynse

By Tulis McCall

There is something quite wonderful happening in the Off Broadway scene this winter. There are shows that make you rethink history (Hamilton), or make your head nearly fall off with excitement (Big Love) or in this case, make you laugh. Actually The Lives of the Saints now at Primary Stages Duke Theatre on 42nd Street., I tried hard not to laugh because I did not want to miss one second of this delicious script. David Ives (Venus in Fur, All In The Timing, School For Lies)  takes silly to a new dimension. He is allegorical, metaphorical, metaphysical and just plain mind boggling. His humor is smart. His writing is not merely funny, it pushes you into new places you had not imagine – much like the Marx brothers did.

We have five superb actors here: Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth. These folks can go from 0 to 100 in a nanno second. Because they play so close to the bone, these pieces are at once funny and sometimes heartbreaking. John Rando’s direction has pulled together a team that is nearly Olympic in it talent, precision and scope.

The Goodness of your Heart opens the evening and puts us on notice that this is not just a frivolous night of laughs. Two men, Dell and Marsh (Arnie Burton and Rick  Holmes) best friends since grade school, experience an enormous upheaval when one suggests that the other buy him a television – a good one – out of the goodness of his heart. It is nearly impossible to keep up with the twisted path down which Ives leads us.  It is raw and almost too real.

Soap Opera features Carson Elrod as a Maypole Repairman – along the lines of the old Maytag repairman on television past. He has fallen in love with a model – specifically a Maypole Nepetune Neptune IT-40. He reveals his story to a skeptical Maitre D’ (Arnie Burtion). Childhood, the pain of loving a machine – and Liv Rooth is a fabulous 1930’s style coquette of a machine – how his love life suffered, etc. etc. There are more puns here than you can catch, and this (as my theatre companion pointed out) is also the most complete of the six plays.

Enigma Variations features a foursome – two men in lab coats and two women in green dresses (Arnie Burton, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth) who fly through their story exchanging parts and places. Each pair is really one person, Bebe W.W. Doppelgängler and Bill Williams, with the actors exchanging leads as well as the dialogue. At first the men are doctors, then patients; it is daja vu all over again and again. And Carson Elrod as Nurse Fifi is the perfect cherry on top.

The second act opens with Life Signs. Helen ( Kelly Hutchinson) is dead and Dr. Burton who “knew her well” (Arnie Burton) is saying all the wrong things, the seriously wrong things,  until he leaves and Toby (Carson Elrod) is alone with his mother. Toby’s kiss on her forehead and “”Goodbye” are responded to with a low-pitched “Hello” by Helen. Soon she is holding forth, being dead and enjoying the freedom. She never opens her eyes but trusts her mouth to reveal way to much information to her son and daughter-in-law Meredith (Live Rooth).

It’s All Good takes a detour to the Twilight Zone when Stephen (Rick Holmes) who is on a book tour, decides to take a field trip and visit his Chicago neighborhood. He runs into Steve (Carson Elrod) who has a life that might have been Stephen’s. Reality lines are blurred, and the order of life is tossed way, way off kilter.

Lives of the Saints gives us two Polish women Edna (Kelly Hutchinson) and Flo (Liv Rooth) who are preparing a funeral breakfast for 12 people that grows to gargantuan proportions. Sound effects, oddly, are provided by the men. It is a touching vignette, that is only undermined by the actors’ choice to so the archetypal “old folks stoop” which is an overused and tired choice. When the rest of this play sings – why could there not be a more inventive way of showing age.

The entire evening is a knock out. This family of artists have come together to elevate and celebrate the worlds that David Ives creates. They have succeeded in ways that will surprise, delight, and confound you. Be forewarned: these are stories with hooks, and though you may not feel yourself being reeled in, you will find it difficult to forget these characters.

Ives writes characters that at first seem distant from us, but who turn out to be living in our attics. Surprise.

LIVES OF THE SAINTS By David Ives; directed by John Rando

Sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Jason Lyons; music and sound by John Gromada; wigs by Tom Watson; props by Christine Goldman; production stage manager, Robbie Kyle Peters; production manager, Mind the Gap; general manager, Toni Marie Davis; associate artistic director, Michelle Bossy. Presented by Primary Stages, Casey Childs, executive producer; Andrew Leynse, artistic director; Elliot Fox, managing director; in association with Jamie deRoy and Barry Feirstein. At the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, 646-223-3010, Through March 27. Running time: 2 hours.

“The Goodness of Your Heart” WITH: Arnie Burton (Del) and Rick Holmes (Marsh).
“Soap Opera” WITH: Arnie Burton (French Maître d’/Madman), Carson Elrod (Repairman), Rick Holmes (Loudspeaker Voice/Friend), Kelly Hutchinson (Mother/Mabel) and Liv Rooth (Washing Machine).
“Enigma Variations” WITH: Arnie Burton (Bill 1), Carson Elrod (Fifi), Rick Holmes (Bill 2), Kelly Hutchinson (Bebe 2) and Liv Rooth (Bebe 1).
“Life Signs” WITH: Arnie Burton (Dr. Binkman), Carson Elrod (Toby), Kelly Hutchinson (Helen) and Liv Rooth (Meredith).
“It’s All Good” WITH: Carson Elrod (Steve), Rick Holmes (Stephen), Kelly Hutchinson (Leah) and Liv Rooth (Amy).
“Lives of the Saints” WITH: Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod and Rick Holmes (Stagehands), Kelly Hutchinson (Edna) and Liv Rooth (Flo).