Leave Room For Jell- O

A brilliant trip through Ives country, with an unexpected detour.

By Cary M. Mazer

Lives of the Saints

Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through Feb. 21, 215-735- 0631

The minute "Enigma Variations" - the first short one-act play in Lives of the Saints - begins, you know you're in David Ives country.

Bebe Doppelgangler (Nancy Opel) has come to Dr. William Williams (Arnie Burton) complaining of an eerie sensation that everything in her life is doubled. As she and the doctor speak, a second set of actors, dressed exactly like them, shadow their every gesture. After the session is over, the characters and their shadows switch places, and the new Bebe complains to the new doctor of the eerie sensation that everything in her life is happening twice. "So," the doctor nods, "your recurring problem is a repeating problem."

This play, and many of the others that comprise Lives of the Saints, has everything you've learned to expect from David Ives if you've seen All in the Timing: verbal brilliance, split-second timing, lightning-fast wordplay and theatrical imagery that takes mere intellectual gimmickry and explodes it into metaphysics. And the actors in John Rando's world-premiere production (read: out-of-town tryout) at the Philadelphia Theatre Company execute the playwright's verbal acrobatics with bravura, turning linguistic pirouettes, leaping from one theatrical trapeze to another without a net.

Once you see that you're in Ives country, you'll be prepared for the oddities that spring up in the landscape. You won't be surprised by the ten minutes of laundry detergent puns in "Soap Opera," the saga of an appliance repairman (Danton Stone) and his love affair with his washing machine (Opel); you'll be as prepared as you'll ever be for the spies and counterspies in "The School of Natural Philosophy" and the way their mutual interrogations about espionage slip into philosophical questions about truth, love and fear; you'll be ready for the complaining workmen building the tower of Babel in "Babel's in Arms," trying to deal with the challenge of schlepping an infinite number of stones to reach an infinitely remote God, and the no-smaller challenge of finding the right words for things before many words have been invented; you'll even be ready for the extended conversation between Saint Francis (Bradford Cover) and the vultures eating his liver (Burton and Anne O'Sullivan) in "Saint Francis Talks to the Birds."

But you won't be prepared for the oddest and deepest and most extraordinary play of the evening, "Lives of the Saints, or Polish Joke." This play, at first sight, doesn't seem to be about anything: its theatrical gimmick, its pun system, its metaphysical tease cannot, unlike the other plays, be summarized in a single sentence. And it's the only play in the evening that has any real acting in it, rather than merely inspired clowning.

Two plainly dressed women (Opel and O'Sullivan) putter around a church basement preparing a funeral breakfast for the mourners of a friend's husband. As they prepare the Jell-O molds and pierogies and cakes, they talk about food and funerals. All of the pots and pans and cabinets in their world are invisible, and yet we hear over the loudspeakers the sounds of cans being opened, of whipped cream being whipped, of oven doors being opened and shut. As they progress, the wall of Russell Metheny's set opens horizontally, and we see two of the other actors working as sound-effects technicians, frantically trying to match the precisely orchestrated sounds to the ladies' mime.

This, too, is a theatrical gimmick. But - without spoiling any more surprises than I've spoiled already - it sets up a quiet moment at the playlet's conclusion in which our perceptions are miraculously transformed, and, in a moment of serene beatitude, these simple women achieve a quiet sainthood of their own.

When the sheer brilliance and non-stop hilarity of the other pieces begin to wear off, and when the puns begin to fade from your memory, these two women and their Jell-O molds will, I predict, continue to float above ground in your imagination.