Talk About Your Good Timing

Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

David Ives always felt sure about choosing a career as a playwright. It just took him some time to convince other people. Like his family, for instance.

When Ives was still an undergraduate at Northwestern University, his parents trooped the 15 miles or so from their blue-collar neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to see their son's first student play. But far from being supportive, they behaved more like fussy drama critics.

"The minute the curtain came down," Ives remembers, "my kid sister coolly informed me, 'They really hated it.' " The young artist was unrepentant: "That's the sort of anger and betrayal that can keep you going into the next play," he says with a laugh.

Luckily for Ives, real critics--as well as audiences and directors--have proven far more charitable toward his work. In fact, since the breakthrough success of "All in the Timing," his 1993 omnibus of quirky, verbally dexterous one-acts, he's become a sensation in regional theaters across the country. "All in the Timing" alone has had 52 productions in the U.S. and Canada since 1995.

Now, West Coast Ensemble in Los Angeles is tackling the local premiere of Ives' "Don Juan in Chicago," a comic fantasy that's been described as a cross between "Doctor Faustus" and "Don Giovanni." The production, which opens Friday, will run in repertory with Lee Blessing's "Eleemosynary." (The company recently closed its secondary Lex space and now operates solely out of the former Estelle Harman Workshop on North La Brea Avenue.)

Ives updated the Don Juan legend by recasting the indefatigable lover as a closet intellectual who cuts a deal with the devil to gain time to read books. Satan grants him eternal life as long as he seduces one woman per day. The conceit gives the playwright plenty of room to exercise his twin strengths--offbeat humor and remarkable linguistic skill.

"As I was working [on the play], certain scenes fell into a kind of pseudo-classical rhyme," Ives says during a telephone interview from New York, where he's working on several projects, including writing stage patter for magician David Copperfield's upcoming Broadway show. "I put the rest in prose and it became like this little 16th century play, which is the century I happen to be living in anyway," jokes the author, who volunteers his "mental age" as 13 but according to the calendar is 46.

"I laughed out loud when reading it," says West Coast artistic director Les Hanson, who has followed Ives' career since the theater produced one of his early one-acts during the late '80s. Hanson, who is directing "Don Juan," adds that he especially prizes the playwright's "craziness, [his] willingness to take things to the extreme."

Despite his precocity, Ives hardly came from a culturally privileged background. Although he realized early he wanted to write plays--he started at age 9 by adapting a thriller novel--relatives remained baffled by his love of theater. His father, a machinist, and his mother, a secretary, "didn't know anyone who did that for a living," he recalls.

At Northwestern, English major Ives earned his keep with scholarships and a job at a local retirement home "for eccentric rich Methodists," as he puts it. "Being 18 years old and hanging out with old people probably ruined me for life in terms of human relations," he observes, "but it gave me an appreciation for the fact that I was breathing better than they were."

After graduation he kicked around in Los Angeles and Boston, writing plays with some limited success (an early effort was picked up by New York's Circle Rep) but mostly just trying to survive. For a while he worked at the now-defunct Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard.

By the mid-'70s he had moved to New York, where, through a fluke friendship with then-editor Bill Bundy, he landed a junior editing job at Foreign Affairs. The high-toned magazine, described by one editor as "the last bastion of Jamesian civilization in the United States," was housed in a mansion on Fifth Avenue, where pipe-smoking ex-diplomats roamed the halls, preoccupied with political troubles in tiny countries young Ives had never heard of.

"I didn't know the first thing about international relations," he admits. Ives stayed three years, however, until growing frustration with his stymied theater career finally got the better of him. He decided to enroll at the Yale School of Drama.

Graduate study yielded plenty of time to write, and also some important connections. One class, for instance, eventually led to a low-budget screenwriting assignment. "It was every Hollywood horror story you've ever heard," Ives says. During story meetings, "the producer's wife would be standing around and he'd turn to her and say, 'What do you think, honey?' and she'd say what she thought we should do, even though she had never read the script."

Ives was also less than thrilled with life in Los Angeles. "You'll try to have a conversation in an L.A. restaurant and there's this periscope effect. Whenever the doors open, everyone will turn their head or lift their eyes to see who walked in," he says.

Though he still writes for Hollywood--among his upcoming projects is a TV script--Ives has devoted most of his attention to the theater, and--especially since "All in the Timing"--he's acquired a reputation as something of a one-act specialist. "Most plays are too long," he contends. "There's something succinct and clear about a one-act play."

The second act of his own life seems to be keeping him pretty busy at the moment. Besides the Copperfield show, scheduled to bow on Broadway next month, he's finishing another one-act anthology called "Mere Mortals and Others" and just signed on as librettist for a new stage version of the Astaire-Rogers musical "Top Hat." Ives--who was married and divorced "many lives ago"--is even collaborating with his longtime girlfriend, a graphic designer and illustrator, on a children's book.

"I'm so overcommitted right now," he says, proving his doubting parents wrong yet again, "I'm typing with my toes as we speak."

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"DON JUAN IN CHICAGO," West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea. Runs in repertory with "Eleemosynary." Dates: Friday through Dec. 15. Call theater for exact dates and times. Price: $18. Phone: (213) 525-0022.

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