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Ives: America’s Best Playwright?

ABOUT THE ARTIST

By Terry Teachout

Twenty years ago a bill of one-act comedies by a nearly unknown playwright named David Ives opened off-Broadway. One-act plays are not often professionally staged in New York, and when they are, they rarely draw crowds. But Ives’s All in the Timing ran for more than 600 performances. Part of what made its success so noteworthy was Ives’s decidedly intellectual and complex brand of humor. To this day, the plays are performed widely throughout the English-speaking world.

But Ives is in his sixties now and the success of the original production of All in the Timing, far from catapulting him to celebrity, was followed by a prolonged period of uncertainty that led many of his admirers to fear that he was nothing more than a brilliant miniaturist who had reached a creative dead end. Instead he evolved, step by careful step, into an artist to be reckoned with.

Born in Chicago in 1950 of working-class Polish American stock, he attended a Catholic seminary with the intention of becoming a priest, but decided at 15 to become a playwright after seeing a road-show production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Following a three-year stint as an editor at Foreign Affairs, he attended the Yale School of Drama, then moved to New York and started writing in earnest.

What made it possible for Ives to quarry art from his crazy-quilt background was his decision to embrace comedy as a way of commenting on the human condition. No less important, though, was his initial preference for the compact, focused medium of the one-act play, which he has likened to the enforced concision of popular songwriting. “There’s something so terribly satisfying about musical form—even the 32-bar Broadway song, or the two-and-a-half-minute Louis Armstrong 78,” he said in 1997. “And the feeling that you’ve gone through a lot in that tiny period of time and come out different is something I really like.”

Not until 2003 and Polish Joke did Ives write a full-evening play that went over with audiences. After that he produced no more original work for five years, instead occupying himself with the superbly well-crafted stage adaptations that had become his bread and butter, including some three dozen revisions of the books of classic musicals and a brilliant English-language version of Georges Feydeau’s classic farce A Flea in Her Ear (2006). But just when it began to look as though he had exhausted his creative potential, Ives wrote, to the utter astonishment of the theatergoing public, a disciplined and persuasive two-act play about Spinoza.

The subject matter of New Jerusalem, which opened Off-Broadway in 2008, is accurately summarized in its long subtitle, “The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” A pantheistic skeptic, Spinoza was excommunicated at the age of 23 for promulgating the “abominable heresies.” Nothing, however, is known of the specifics of the trial that brought about his expulsion from Talmud Torah. In the near-complete absence of information about the proceedings, Ives wrote a courtroom drama of his own devising in which the arrogant young philosopher and the chief rabbi of Amsterdam wrestle with the problem of faith passionately. The result is a play whose comic touches sharpen the pathos of the climactic moment when Spinoza is rejected by his community and sentenced to wander in the chilly wilderness of modernity.

That so bracing a play should have come from the author of Sure Thing scarcely seemed possible to those who knew nothing of Ives’s other work, much less his early attraction to the religious life. Even more startling, though, is the way in which Venus in Fur, his breakout play, turned Venus in Furs, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel about an obsessive relationship between a passive man and a dominant woman, into a dazzlingly black comedy about the nature of sexual desire.

In Venus in Fur, a self-important young playwright is auditioning actors for his new stage version of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. At the end of a stormy and exhausting day, a seemingly air-headed young actress (“So S&M is, like, named after the guy! Cool!”) shows up late, talks the playwright into letting her audition anyway, then lures him into a relationship similar to that portrayed in the book. Ives’s animating conceit is to structure Venus in Fur as a quasi-Gothic mystery story that is played for laughs. In due course, though, it becomes evident that his real intention is to explore how sexual relationships between men and women presuppose a constantly shifting balance of power.

Not only did Venus in Fur turn Nina Arianda, who played the actress in the original production, into a star, but it has since been taken up by regional theaters throughout America, in part because of its racy subject matter and in part because it is so inexpensive to produce (it requires only two actors and one simple set). It bears a family resemblance to Ives’s one-act plays, moreover, albeit writ larger. But Venus in Fur, like New Jerusalem before it, cuts much deeper, both intellectually and emotionally, than All in the Timing.

Ives subsequently focused on a remarkable series of “translaptations” commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company: The Liar (2010), The Heir Apparent (2011) and The Metromaniacs (2015). During that time he also produced The School for Lies, the most noteworthy of his “translaptations,” a free adaptation of Molière’s Le Misanthrope written in a contemporary-sounding English that derives much of its sparkling charm from being pressed into the incongruously tight mold of iambic pentameter.

Who are the most important American playwrights of the past quarter-century? Drama critics are a famously contentious lot, but most of them would probably settle on Tony Kushner, Tracy Letts, David Mamet and August Wilson, with an assortment of other names bringing up the rear. Few, by contrast, would be likely to mention David Ives’s name, as he is still best known for his short plays and is considered by many critics a “mere” comedian.

The critical bias against comedy is of long standing and it has grown more pronounced in recent years, perhaps because American theater itself has grown so intensely politicized. A committed critic who believes that the purpose of great drama is to set the world straight will be unlikely to respond wholeheartedly to the work of a playwright who seeks merely to show it as it is.

He prefers to show us the world’s madness from a comic perspective. As he once told an interviewer, “Comedy to me is not less serious than serious plays. I love what W.H. Auden said, ‘Comedy is the noblest form of stoicism.’” Those are the words of a mature artist who, recognizing the vanity of human wishes and the harshness of man’s fate, has chosen to laugh at the absurdities of life instead of weeping over them.

Those who prefer to do otherwise will, of course, find no shortage of more agreeable theatrical fare. But they will also fail to fully appreciate a playwright who is in his own way as talented—and as serious—as Mamet or Wilson. For David Ives is a kind of genius, a profoundly original artist who refracts the visible world through a personal prism to show us things that we could never have envisioned on our own.

 

Excerpted from the full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays 2016-2017, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook. Season ticket holders receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of biographies of Louis Armstrong, George Balanchine, Duke Ellington and H.L. Mencken. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, has been produced Off-Broadway and throughout America. This article was originally published in April 2013 for Commentary.

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