The title “Lives of the Saints” promises so much: kinky medieval torture, bizarre eating disorders, blood spurting from the hands and feet at key moments. None of these things are touched on in the David Ives comedy, which opened Tuesday at New York’s Duke on 42nd Street, and is actually not one play but six short skits.
What these skits — some new, some not — have to do with saints is that the last and the best of them is titled “Lives of Saints,” and portrays two elderly cooks (Kelly Hutchinson, Liv Rooth) who prepare meals for funeral-goers in a church basement.
The two actresses, who are much younger than their characters, don’t push the caricatures; Ives’ writing achieves a low-key whimsy; and director John Rando pulls off a coup d’theatre by turning the entire exercise into something resembling a radio play, with the evening’s three other actors (Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes) providing the sound effects as Hutchinson and Rooth effectively mime their cooking duties. No stigmatas materialize, but the women are saints nonetheless.
Perhaps if Ives had started his play with the “Lives of Saints” skit, the audience would be able to show some goodwill toward what follows. To call the night’s first half a bore is an understatement. The comic effect of Ives’ first skit, “The Goodness of Your Heart,” depends on one character (Burton) out-screaming the other (Holmes) as he teaches him to say the words “thank you.” In “Soap Opera,” a repairman (Elrod) falls in love with a washing machine (Rooth), which means Ives gets to make not-so-clever word plays on “my dirty laundry” and Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle.”
“Saturday Night Live” performs these kinds of skits in half the time and actually makes them topical, which Ives’ work here never is. The advantage he has over network TV is that he gets to use the word “cock” a lot in “Life Signs,” which kicks off the second half to the audience’s delight. Nothing gets a laugh faster than having a very old woman (Hutchinson) talk about penis size. Actually, the woman is dead and she talks about penis size, so it’s double the laughs. It helps, too, that Elrod, playing her son, loses his mind in a manner that recalls the comic prowess of a young Woody Allen.
“Life Signs” is reminiscent of that new BMW ad in which an old woman sits in the backseat of the car and torments her son with talk about wearing leather and her dead husband being “dominant.” Maybe we should just be grateful that Ives and BMW don’t have their senior citizens discussing bowel movements, another foolproof way to get a cheap laugh.
“Lives of the Saints” is presented by Primary Stages.