Since we have some tougher matters to digest this week, let’s sweeten the deal by starting with dessert. I recommend, as the most deliciously silly theatrical treat in town, the 20th anniversary staging of David Ives’s short-play omnibus, All in the Timing (59 E 59 Theaters), whipped to a satisfying froth under John Rando’s direction. The short play is Ives’s true metier; even his best longer works, like the successful Venus in Fur and the very substantial New Jerusalem, don’t quite sustain a full evening. But in a one-act, lasting from 10 minutes to half an hour, Ives can spin out the event to perfection.
This happens because language, rather than feeling or thought, is Ives’s passion. He has ideas, just as he has a heart, but they stand for less, in his dramaturgic world order, than phraseology. All playwrights fuel their imaginations with slips of the tongue or of the typing fingers, but Ives, on such slender foundations, can build entire works. And because one-acts commonly run to predictable patterns, in the short form his airy structures seem both magically sturdy and astonishingly fresh.
Three of the six items that make up All in the Timing fit one of the form’s standard modes, the boy-girl encounter. Or they would if Ives’s wacky verbal sense didn’t rule. In “Sure Thing,” a banal coffee-shop pickup becomes a witty social commentary by reversing conventional procedure—the relationship remains ongoing while the expository facts behind it keep altering. In “The Universal Language,” the phony verbal system that a con artist has been unsuccessfully marketing turns into his road to success with a female kindred spirit. “The Philadelphia” spoofs existential states of mind by building a customer-waitress flirtation on word-object reversals. (When you’re in the title condition, you get a cheesesteak no matter what you ordered.)
The other three pieces haul cultural icons onto this wordsmith’s playground, with giddy results. “Words, Words, Words” kids the notion that three monkeys, typing into infinity, would ultimately write Hamlet. “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread” applies Glass’s musical techniques to scraps of ordinary conversation, with hilariously ornate “minimalist” results—and burgeoning Wilson stage imagery to match. These two works, with their streams of gags, show Ives at his lightly satirical best. But the last and weakest of the sextet, “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” reveals the flaw in his approach: Its humor and its emotional depth both stop cold because its puckish multiple reworkings of this pivotal historical moment convey nothing about what Trotsky believed or why someone would want to assassinate him. Constantly reassembling cascades of words can produce laughs; meaning has to come from something beyond words themselves.
Still, to demand meaning from our desserts would drive the world’s pastry chefs into deep despair. Ives is a first-class pâtissier. With Rando in command of the bakeshop, he serves up top-quality delights, mouth-wateringly sweet, textured with perfectly flaky crust and precise dashes of surprising flavors. Liv Rooth and Jenn Harris supply the carefully measured sweetness, Matthew Saldivar the lemon zest. The main burden of cooking and serving falls, gloriously, on Carson Elrod, who dominates five of the six pieces. With his long, rabbitty face, and his nerve ends seemingly fraying in all directions, he evokes a virtual anthology of New Yorker cartoons—a Whitney Darrow morphing, via Steig, into a Roz Chast.
Now we come to matters harder to swallow. The murder of Matthew Shepard, 15 years ago, is one of those resonant events that won’t go away. It seems to ask some central question about how and why America became what it is. Director Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project has created two full-evening documentary pieces dealing with the events that arose from Shepard’s murder. Now being played in alternating rep as The Laramie Cycle (BAM Harvey Theater), the two works derive their texts from news reports, trial testimony, and interviews that company members had with both Laramie residents and visitors (including themselves). The Laramie Project, first staged in 2004, covers events through the trial of Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Its follow-up, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, focuses on changes achieved—and not achieved—since then.
To watch either piece is a sobering experience. To watch both in succession is to feel deep furrows of concern being engraved in your brain, and a deep sorrow into your heart. Kaufman and his collaborators deal fairly with everyone. In the second piece, they reserve their sharpest implied criticism for media hotshots who proceed from hearsay rather than evidence. (A 2004 network-TV show stirred up a hornet’s nest by alleging that Shepard’s death was no hate crime, but the result of a drug deal gone wrong—a notion firmly refuted by the evidence laid out in 10 Years Later.)
The panorama of Laramie residents that the two works display range from open homosexuals to the emphatically anti-gay, from high officials to college kids and store clerks, from third-generation residents to newcomers. Tectonic notates the panoply of opinions they represent and the way, in some cases, those opinions have evolved. Strikingly, the law officers who saw the events at first hand, who dealt most closely with the victim or the perpetrators, seem to have changed most deeply. Their love for Laramie never blinds them to its underlying potential for deep division, violence, hatred.
It’s 15 years later now. Like the rest of the U.S., Laramie has altered. Whether it’s progressed, spiritually, to the point of understanding that all its citizens have an equal right to play a part in its life, is a different question, which the cycle raises but doesn’t claim to answer. A small victory—a proposed “defense of marriage” amendment quashed in the state legislature—is balanced by a small defeat: The University of Wyoming stalls on the implementation of same-sex domestic-partner benefits.
Repeatedly, Laramie residents tell the troupe that their home is a “live and let live” place. Most Americans would say that of their home town or region. America’s extraordinary ability to hope, like the extraordinary beauty of its Western scenic vistas, seems summed up in Laramie. So, tragically, does its distinctive gift for denial, for blotting out of awareness and of memory the notion that dark undercurrents run here. When the crime occurred, many wanted to believe that “we don’t grow children like that here.” A decade later, many cling to the false contention that it was all about drugs. Americans have trouble facing facts.
And they have trouble retaining history, on our shifting landscape. The bar where the murderers offered Matthew Shepard a ride home has changed its ownership, name, and style. The remote fence they tied him to, before bashing him on the head 19 times, has been dismantled. A vast number of Americans now know the story of Matthew Shepard mainly from high-school productions of The Laramie Project—much larger than the number who remember his story in Laramie itself.