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Ancient History 

 

click to enlarge Unsaved by the bell: Ricardo Vila-Roger (left) and Jennifer Luta spar in Ancient History, at Red Barn Theater
  • Unsaved by the bell: Ricardo Vila-Roger (left) and Jennifer Luta spar in Ancient History, at Red Barn Theater
If plays are any sort of guide, you gotta wonder how men and women ever manage to come together. I realize, of course, that theater is all about punching up the drama of real life -- but considering how impossible dramatists make coupling look, you'd never figure there'd be so many ill-behaved children running around.

Another report on the battle of the sexes, courtesy of Red Barn Theater, arrives with the Pittsburgh premiere of David Ives' Ancient History. Ives, who also wrote All in the Timing -- an evening of slightly heady, slightly frosty comedy skits -- here utilizes a more traditional theater style.

Or at least he eventually does. In the most popular of the Timing skits, called "Sure Thing," a man and a woman meet at a café and try to hook up. Every minute or so one of them says something particularly unappealing, a bell rings off stage, and they jump back a few lines and try it again until they land on surer romantic ground. Ancient History begins the same way. We're in the well-appointed bedroom of Ruth as she and her longstanding boyfriend, Jack, prepare to host Ruth's birthday party. A few lines go by, a bell rings and they back up and start again, navigating their way toward the party.

Ives is a clever, at times funny, writer, and since I like and admire "Sure Thing," I didn't mind this very short first act. On the other hand, since he had already mined this territory so successfully, I wasn't sure why he was revisiting it.

As it turns out, he wasn't. The second act of Ancient History opens at evening's end. The guests have gone home, and as Ruth and Jack review the party they find themselves re-examining their own relationship. Ives runs them through the start/bell-ring/go-back thing again, but not nearly as often -- and this time, it's for emotional rather than dramaturgical reasons. Ruth and Jack try to imagine their futures, but each option they consider ends with the dissolution of their relationship. The overwhelming sadness of the play is that Ruth and Jack are at heart sweet, loving people who, by rights, should be together. But outside forces and the "ancient history" of family and past loves can only pull them apart.

I really loved the second act of this play, thanks in no small part to Bill Ivins' solid direction and the very winning performances of Jennifer Luta and Ricardo Vila-Roger as Ruth and Jack. Despite the first act's studied theatricality, Ives has gone to tremendous lengths to create a small play filled with many simple, heartbreaking moments, and Ivins, Luta and Vila-Roger have the sense and talent to put it across.

Ancient History continues through June 10. Red Barn Theater, 3101 McCully Road, Allison Park. 412-487-4390.

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