Pulling his seductive moves during a round of miniature golf, Chuck (Jimi Kinstle) tells his partner, Amy (Jane Beard), "You're going to like this game so much you'll wake up shorter tomorrow." Playwright David Ives ("All in the Timing") is back at the Round House Theatre, this time with his collection of six short sketches, "Mere Mortals." Nick Olcott is at the directing helm, and the snappy comic cast of Kinstle, Beard, Marty Lodge, Kathryn Kelley, David Fendig and Naomi Jacobson is along for the fun.
Fun is all you get in the first act--not that there's anything wrong with that--but in the second, things become more complex. There's yearning in the two last pieces, "Dr. Fritz" and "Degas C'est Moi," and hope for spiritual transcendence.
Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.'s handsome set looks like an abstract of an art deco hotel lobby, the kind of place where the doors can turn into sky, and the actors skitter about as Ives's various dithering characters. With one exception, there are no calm people in any of the sketches. People are on the move, on the make, on the verge of something that's going to be better than what they've got now.
The only pure parody of the evening is "Speed-the-Play," in which Ives does to David Mamet what Christopher Durang did off-Broadway to Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams a few years ago--he bones him like a fish. We get four Mamet plays in seven minutes, featuring lines such as, "I think I'll ask Donny to steal some buffalo head nickels tonight to illustrate the nature of American capitalism." There's also some short, pithy, brutal dialogue: "I'm a whore!"/ "I'm a whore, too!"/ "And we're men!"
In other sketches, three construction workers (Kinstle, Fendig, Lodge) reveal to one another their amazing true identities, and a pair of mayflies (Beard and Lodge) discover via a David Attenborough television special (Fendig is a toothy, funny Attenborough) that their species lives only for a day.
In the final two pieces, the show--which up to this point has been merely witty and hilarious--takes on a different tone, becoming more intense and dreamlike. In "Dr. Fritz" Tom (Fendig), an American tourist in Argentina, visits the mysterious title character (Jacobson), seeking relief from food poisoning. Jacobson not only plays Dr. Fritz but also the doctor's mysterious female assistant, who keeps trying to sell Tom souvenirs and talks to God on a telephone that looks like a stuffed puppet. It really is God she's talking to: We get a miracle to prove it. Jacobson goes into areas of comic weirdness that are amazing even for her. Mad as the sketch gets, she can keep up with it.
The evening ends with "Degas C'est Moi," in which out-of-work schlub Ed (Kinstle) decides to improve his life by becoming Edgar Degas for a day. In this new identity he wanders around New York, which, being a harsh, heartless city, doesn't seem to notice that he's a famous, dead, French impressionist painter. The piece goes past its absurd setup into areas of identity, fear and hope that are unexpectedly affecting.
The production has Olcott's trademark crack timing and subtle feel for the poignancy in comedy. Rosemary Pardee has designed exquisitely ridiculous costumes, her triumph being the mayflies (which have two extra, movable arms for Beard and Lodge to gesture with). Scott Burgess's eclectic soundtrack includes golf course noises (hard to describe but, trust me, very convincing) and the croaking of giant bullfrogs (giant, that is, from a mayfly's point of view). Ayun Fedorcha lights all this nonsense with a crisp clarity that complements the evening's brisk humor.
Mere Mortals, by David Ives. Directed by Nick Olcott. Props, Tommy Wang. At the Round House Theatre through June 27. Call 301-933-1644.
CAPTION: Marty Lodge and Jane Beard in one of six sketches by David Ives.