Last laugh

Social scientists and cultural engineers are, even as you read, racking their brains to determine why sketch comedy has reached rock bottom. Could it be that amusing situations and snappy lines are finite resources that have been exhausted? Or are all the good writers busy working on The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld?

Until the data are in, caution is the order of the day when it comes to sampling new sketch comedies. Choose rashly and you could wind up sitting through something like All in the Timing, a series of one-act plays by David Ives at the Circle Theatre in Fort Worth.

As usual, the liability here is not the acting or direction, but the writing. Ives has cobbled together six comedies, most of them united by the common theme of language, which, as Voltaire said, "was given to man to conceal his thoughts." Unfortunately, in some cases there is little to conceal.

Play one, Sure Thing, revolves around a woman at a restaurant reading a book who is approached by a variety of men looking for an available seat and possibly for an available female. The ensuing conversations go through a number of fits and starts before a man comes along with whom the woman can find some common ground.

The woman, upon being asked, remarks that she is reading The Sound and the Fury, to which the man responds, "Oh, Hemingway." The joke is a kind of intellectual litmus test to see how many people in the audience know that Faulkner, not Hemingway, is the author of The Sound and the Fury. Though most of us signaled our educational attainments by chuckling, it's a pretty sure bet that few people attending this play (and perhaps not even the playwright himself) have actually read Faulkner's tedious book. Still, Ives encourages us to feel intellectually smug without challenging the basis for that smugness.

The same pattern emerges in the next vignette, Words, Words, Words, which dramatizes the adage that chimps locked in a room with typewriters will eventually write Hamlet. Again, the audience is asked to serve up self-congratulatory laughs each time it recognizes the most obvious lines from Milton or Shakespeare. Though generally leaden and pretentious, the sketch does benefit from Spencer Prokop's canny impression of a chimpanzee. When Prokop deadpans that he's going to retire from his literary efforts for "a shot of papaya and some masturbation," he gets one of the few deserved laughs of the evening.

The intellectual grandstanding reaches its height with Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, in which customers in a bakery shop parody the composer's musical style. Though the actors are game, it's tough to get a laugh when a playwright is merely parading his knowledge of haute culture (showing off is for critics of the pencil-necked geek variety like myself--not playwrights).

English Made Simple, the fourth comedy, uses a technique Woody Allen made popular in Annie Hall. A man and a woman engage in conversation, with subtitles (or, in this case, a schoolmarmish proctor) indicating the real message lying underneath the duo's words. The real message, in the man's case, is "fuck you," a joke that works fairly well the first time you hear it but which pales considerably the second and third time it's employed.

Mere Mortals takes a patronizing look at three construction workers, all of whom have delusions of grandeur regarding their family trees. Again, Ives is looking down his nose at those untutored boobs among us whose cultural appreciation and historical perspective were not honed at a top-10 school. These "rude mechanicals" (a learned allusion to comic characters in Shakespeare, thank you) are meant to be endearing in their naivete, and possibly even touching in their aspirations to the nobility and class they so obviously lack. What anyone who has worked construction can tell you, however, is that construction workers share a common contempt for blue bloods, paper pushers, and other weak sisters who can't or don't use tools to earn a living.

The last sketch, Universal Language, concerns the purveyor of an extremely arch and irritating world language, Unamunda, who tries to pawn off his creation on a woman with a stammer. If you find Pig Latin annoying, try listening to 15 minutes of Unamunda.

As directed by Kerry Cole, a member of the local comedy group, 4 out of 5 Doctors, the segments are ushered by quickly, but not quickly enough.

All in the Timing runs through March 30 at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre. Call (817) 877-3040.