Mere mortals may take center stage in the Alley's season opener on the Neuhaus Arena Stage, but the situations and laughs concocted by the production's talented cast will undoubtedly have universal appeal.
The play, which bowed off-Broadway earlier this year, is filled with outrageous situations and buffoonish, sometimes heartfelt characters, each unknowingly providing sly observations on the art of living life.
That the Alley's first-rate cast so effortlessly and often brilliantly succeeds in heightening the overall effect of each of the evening's six one-act plays only adds to playwright David Ives' offbeat comic tone.
The half-dozen set of skits in Mere Mortals kicks off with "Foreplay, or: The Art of the Fugue," a look at dating rituals via a miniature golf course known as Lilli-put Lane. Actors John Feltch, Paul Hope and Shelley Williams give the somewhat slight discourse some comic edge, but it's Annalee Jefferies as a deceitfully ditzy tart who turns the tables on male sexual prowess who gives "Foreplay" its true guffaw factor. Her performance is bubbly and infectiously buoyant.
"Mere Mortals," the evening's title piece, is an amusing confessional atop an in-construction building in Manhattan. As three workers who may not be the people everyone sees them as, Hope, Feltch and James Black are right on target. Each actor nicely balances the outrageousness of the situation with a precise sense of understatement at just the right moments.
"Time Flies" is the quirkiest and perhaps the weakest piece of the evening, if only for the sheer absurdity of its premise. Sherri Parker Lee and Feltch twitch and twiddle as a pair of mating mayflies who are getting to know each other after a party at a nearby "lily" pad, but Ives' comic sense seems a bit off-kilter. Still, there are some cute moments as the mayflies soon discover they will only live for a day, thanks to a nature program on the tube hosted by David Attenborough (Hope, in an amusingly deadpan stint).
If Act One provided a good number of pleasant laughs, Act Two shapes up as a laugh-out-loud marathon. All the stops come out here, and a number of stellar performers give simply ingenious comic performances.
"Dr. Fritz, or: The Forces of Light" provides some of the biggest laughs in Mere Mortals, and features the evening's best performance by the incomparable Shelley Williams.
The cross-wired ethnic lines Williams walks on provide moments of unbelievable hilarity as she takes on the roles of Dr. Fritz's flighty, religious assistant Maria and the doctor himself, who has a direct line to God through a rag doll. Her timing and total immersion in the roles are often remarkable.
As the straight-face to Williams' antics, Feltch measures up nicely, providing plenty of laughs himself as a patient whose food poisoning is minor compared to what he endures at the hands of the doctor and his assistant.
"Speed-The-Play" is a fast-paced zip through the oft-overrated works of David Mamet, and it is here that Ives' pen feels the sharpest. His takedown of Mamet's work through the eyes of a bunch of would-be thugs and molls is hilarious.
Director Joe Brancato excels at making the scene feel pointed and fresh, and he is helped by a crew of able actors. Jefferies is especially notable in a gender-bending role, and Lee is also funny as a bombshell scuffling along in stiletto heels.
The evening's final piece, "Degas, C'est Moi," retains a comic feel, but is injected with a wistful, almost longing poignancy detailing our own search for the truly remarkable person within us all.
As the unemployed hero who decides to become impressionist painter Edgar Degas for a day, Black is warm, funny and touching - he creates a sort of Supereveryman. His run-ins with everyday people and places on the streets of New York who barely acknowledge him reflect our own ignorance of everyday wonder.
Director Brancato peppers "Degas" with wonderful touches, like painting images (the wonderfully somber and prim Feltch and Lee) that come to life and drop in and out of the picture. Again, distinct appearances by Williams as a street bum and Jefferies as a harried, hilarious unemployment office worker add greatly to the overall effect.
Ives' creation is wonderfully realized by a more-than-able Alley cast and crew, who nicely capture the idiosyncratic human qualities in the play while giving each skit its own delightfully comic spin.
Mere Mortals runs through Nov. 9 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $36 to $40.
From 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, the Alley will offer buy-one-get-one-free tickets to any would-be golfer who can putt a hole in one in the lobby. Tickets are for the 8 p.m. Friday or the 2:30 p.m. Saturday performance. Call (713) 228-8421 for regular reservations or any additional information.