There was a moment this past December in Paris when playwright David Ives achieved what he calls "a moment of maximum fabulosity."
Film director Roman Polanski had invited him to a snazzy cafe to talk more about adapting his Tony Award-nominated play "Venus in Fur" into a movie when the pair spotted the chic "God of Carnage" playwright Yasmina Reza sitting with a distinguished-looking gentleman. After the trio exchanged greetings, the mysterious man was introduced as renowned writer Milan Kundera, whose books include "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
It was all a little surreal for Ives, who maintains a down-to-earth modesty even though he's kind of a big thing, too. "You feel like your brain is going to start on fire. You feel like burning phosphorous in company like that," he recalls of the meeting, laughing. "What do you say to Milan Kundera? 'How is your crepe?'"
Heady stuff indeed, but Ives, a wire-thin man who favors gin martinis as dry as his wit, is enjoying quite a bit of limelight after steadily building an unorthodox career first as a playwright of one-act comedies and lately as a sought-after theatrical medic.
The playwright is this month celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first big success - "All in the Timing" - a collection of six short plays that he jokes "catapulted me into obscurity."
Primary Stages, which produced the plays in 1993, is once again mounting them, this time at 59E59 Theatres. Twenty years ago, the show was popular enough to run over 600 performances off-Broadway and became a favorite for amateur and college theaters.
"All in the Timing" is a candy sampler of Ives' special humor, a half-dozen absurdist plays that twist time and language. In one, three monkeys try to produce "Hamlet" on typewriters; in another, a man teaches gibberish to a woman with a stutter. A third has Marxist leader Leon Trotsky contemplating life while having a mountain climber's ax buried in his head.
Director John Rando, who has worked with Ives on many of his plays and concert shows since they first collaborated in the mid-1990s, calls the playwright "our generation's George S. Kaufman."
"He's a funny guy. He loves a good laugh. He loves a good joke and yet he's incredibly intelligent and he's an amazing wordsmith," says Rando, who directs the revival. "He creates theatrical language at its most playful."
Each of the six plays was written at different times for a now-defunct humor festival, but all shared a goal: Ives had just met his future wife, Martha, an illustrator whom he married in 1997. "In many ways I wrote these plays to amuse this woman that I was in love with," he says. "She continues to be the best audience in the world."
In the two decades since his humor took center stage, Ives is now a playwright who dives into failed plays or musicals and fixes them, whether they're a stage version of the Irving Berlin film "White Christmas," a French farce about marital mayhem from the early 1900s, or a work by a 17th-century French dramatist.
"I don't want to be a taxidermist. I would rather be the mad scientist who attaches the electrodes that actually brings these characters to life," he says. "What I try to find is what that human story is in the middle of them that can still speak to us."
Among his works are "The School for Lies," an updated version of Moliere's comedy "The Misanthrope" that Ives calls "sort of a tear-down"; "Is He Dead?" a Broadway adaptation of a Mark Twain tale; and a reworking of Pierre Corneille's "The Liar" in rhymed couplets that Ives calls "more a fixer-upper."
"This is an old recourse in the theater when you're looking for material," he says, pointing out that Shakespeare borrowed plots for 35 of his 37 plays. "It's much easier than having to come up with your own original ideas."
Ives is also the guy who has tinkered with 33 problematic scripts for the Encores! concert series over the past 20 years and turned an erotic play based on a German pornographic novel from 1870 into the Broadway hit "Venus in Fur." Polanski is currently in Paris turning that into a film starring his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner.
Ives just finished "The Metromaniacs," a play adapted from a French comedy from 1738 that was so obscure no English translation existed. He found a copy on Amazon and went to work. "That play didn't need a tweaking. It needed a thwacking." In his spare time, he's also working on a musical with Stephen Sondheim.
"I get bored so easily I just have to make sure I'm doing something different," he says. "Needless to say, this has not helped my career any because no one knows what the hell to make of me."