Review: Fresno State’s streaming version of ‘All in the Timing’ struggles to connect
Maybe it’s the timing. I wholeheartedly embraced David Ives’ “All in the Timing” (which continues through June 12) when I first saw it 25 some-odd years ago. The absurdist comedy connected with me on both an intellectual and belly-laugh level. I loved how the script delighted in nifty wordplay, romped around with language and syntax, dabbled in existential crisis and even offered a musical tribute to the avant-garde composer Philip Glass.
Pictured above: Luke R. Nothstein, Cassidy
LeClair and Andy Souk perform in ‘The Universal Language,’ part of ‘All in the Timing.’ Photo: Fresno State
Pictured above: Luke R. Nothstein, Cassidy
Fast forward to 2021. This time, in a filmed stage version (necessitated by social distancing protocols) presented by Fresno State’s theater department, I’m not feeling the love. Part of my ambivalence, I realize, is fatigue with all things Zoom and virtual. Jokes land differently in filmed entertainment. You don’t have the benefit of a mutually laughing audience, where goodwill and warmth for the production can grow in what you might think of as a group effort. There’s a reason that many network sitcoms before a studio audience — or at least add a laugh track.
I admire the theater department’s insistence on providing performance opportunities for its students, regardless of platform, but it hasn’t always been easy for audiences. I am sure that the department will fight to get its students back to live performance, in whatever form, when the new fall semester returns.
Beyond the delivery, however, there’s another reason for my ambivalence toward “All in the Timing.” The material hasn’t aged well.
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Back in 1993, when the play opened Off-Broadway, Ives’ dazzling wordplay made you feel as if you were sailing into uncharted philosophical and linguistic territory. Take the opening vignette of the six that are presented: “Sure Thing.” In it, a man and woman bump into each other at a coffeehouse and engage in a series of conversations that repeatedly terminate in awkward dead-ends. In one, the man utters something stupid, and the woman shuts things down. In another, the woman says something too needy, and the man withdraws. At times, one of the characters gets a chance to “try out” a series of responses to see which one lands appropriately. (The Woody Allen joke, which pre-scandal was an amusing self-referential moment in itself, is more of a wince these days)
Is the conceit clever? Sure, I guess, but — sorry to sound ho-hum — the “multiverse” plot trope has been in heavy rotation in recent years. The idea, advanced by some cosmologists, of an infinite number of parallel universes, each one branching off each other as a consequence of individual actions down to the molecular level, is enticing to authors and screenwriters. I can think of at least three books and TV series I’ve consumed recently toying with that premise. (Have you seen “DEVS”? It’s crazy good.) Ives’ technique of ringing a new “universe” with a bell each time during the vignette starts feeling obvious — and a bit tedious.
Director J. Daniel Herring creates a brisk, bright world as we proceed through the other vignettes. But, again, things can feel flat, such as in “Words, Words, Words,” in which three monkeys are tasked to create “Hamlet” by banging randomly on their typewriters. (When we aren’t there live with the actors in the same room when they do the primate-beserk thing, it just isn’t the same.) In “The Universal Language,” in which a shy, stuttering woman tries to sign up for a class in Unamunda, the spiffy specifics of Ives’ script can add to the dated feel. (Whatever happened to Howard Johnson’s?) The very reason for the vignette starts to feel fuzzy: Is it a wry commentary on the overbearing expectations that English speakers have that everyone should speak their language? Is it saying something about the destruction of so many of the world’s smaller languages? Hey, should the 2021 version of “All in the Timing” feature an Unamunda that sounds a lot more like Chinese?
Of all the scenes, the one that came closest to feeling truly theatrical is “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” an absurdist scenario that opens with the Russian revolutionary working calmly at his desk with a mountain-climber’s axe buried in his scalp, which is how he was assassinated. (Fresno State students Andrew Mickelson, Julia Prieto and Carlos Sanchez offer compelling performances.) In form, the structure is quite similar to the alternate realities of “Sure Thing.” But this scene resonates emotionally. When Prieto, as Mrs. Trotsky, sadly informs Trotsky that he is actually unconscious in a hospital, the tone shifts. This isn’t just about wordplay. Also, in a comic vein, “Variations” contains the one line in the production that made me laugh out loud. It’s when an exasperated Mrs. Trotsky, trying to get through to her husband, snaps: “Get that through your skull!” Silly, I know, but feeling and laughing are important parts of the theater.
I realize that I might be accused of thinking too much about this play. It’s just supposed to be wacky fun, right? But Ives wrote it in an intellectually charged fashion, so I feel it deserves that kind of response. On my first viewing I felt snugly wrapped up in the clever topical references. Now that those have sort of fallen away, I feel like I’m able to more clearly see the bones of the show. And they feel creaky.