Sure Thing

This short, one act play by David Ives (take a look at an interview at Columbia) is a fascinating spring-board into drama.  Much about it is fairly minimalist.  There are only two characters (though they run through some transformations during the course of the "plot"); the stage is bare, the stage directions are minimal; and the language, though quirky and full of fun, is more functional than anything else; yet, at the same time, the bare stage, the functional language becomes magically alive on the stage.

The play explores the encounter between Bill and Betty, generic names for a generic couple.  As the play  begins we see a classic exchange between the two, Bill approaching Betty to enquire whether he might sit beside her:

    Bill.    Excuse me.  Is this chair taken?

    Betty. Excuse me?

    Bill.    Is this taken?

    Betty. Yes, it is.

    Bill.    Oh.  Sorry.

    Betty. Sure thing.

      (A bell rings softly)

And therein lies the delight of the play.  The casual flirtation that should have had so much promise (this is theatre after all, not real life), dies a clumsy death, as I'm sure we have all wished at some time.  Bill, unable to counter with a clever rejoinder, Betty, completely disinterested in Billīs clichéd pick-up routine both part on the dreadful finality of "sure thing."  But, of course, unlike real life, it doesn't end there.  The phrase "sure thing," itself is well chosen, idiomatically a phrasal substitute for agreement, "are you happy?" "sure thing," yet it also has specific meaning in the language of risk.  A "sure thing" is something that you can bet all on, and that has interesting ramifications in the context of romance and relationships.  Aren't we all looking for a sure thing?  Isn't love something of a game of chance (though when we fall for it properly it doesn't feel as though risk is involved). 

In a traditional play, that might be that, but in David Ivesī play, the bell that rings softly at the end of that first failed attempt signals a second chance, a new opportunity to find the right response, and the beginning of multiple new opportunities as the two characters seek the right combination, the right nuance, the right approach that will win the day, and each other's hearts..

What results is a very funny sequence: a series of opportunities, of near misses, of crashing abject failures as Bill tries to engage Bettyīs attention.  Of particular interest is the way that the voices of each character go through tonal shifts sparking the endless variety of possibility-event as much as the comedy of their successive failures, but also speaking to the plasticity of dramatic characters (and the plot they shape).  The play is instructive for those exploring drama (possibly for the first time), since the reader, like the director of a play produced on stage, is responsible for shaping the dialogue which in turn defines character, drives plot and accentuates dramatic themes.   A performed play is a play that has been interpreted for you.  When you read a play, you have to go through the act of interpreting the raw language on the page and assigning intonation, expression, gesture, even perhaps context, and ultimately meaning, to it.  What is so interesting about Ivesī play, and so difficult, initially, is that the characters seem to be in constant flux as they search for a way through the veritable labyrinth of this chance possibly (and at times seemingly impossibly) romantic meeting.

Betty sets up a series of initial barriers to Billīs casual inquiry, "is this seat taken," in various incarnations of that first exchange she replies, "yes, it is," then "No, but Iīm expecting somebody in a minute," then the hesitant possibility of  "They seem to be pretty late..." and the apparent invitation of "No, itīs not."  That last response prompts Billīs "Would you mind if I sit here?"  "Yes, I would," comes Bettyīs crushing response.  Finally Bill gets off the ground in the next exchange but the same faltering, exploratory, variability of nuance and whimsical response follows the pair throughout the play.

Each time the possibility of romance crashes and burns, the bell rings softly and the pair start over and try again.  The characters shift and fine tune themselves, accommodating different possibilities, even different selves (Betty is alternately dismissive, or coy, or inviting, Bill reinvents himself as a fool, a party animal, a philistine, a religious zealot and an intellectual in the sequence where he responds to Bettyīs book.  Itīs a comical look at the postures we assume and the self-invention that goes on during flirtation, and in relationships, but more than that, itīs a clever exposé of the invention process that a writer undertakes in creating any fictional or creative world, making this play a clever metafiction or metadrama.  The reader is right to feel slightly awed by the endless possibility and variation that is on display here, in what is a rather virtuoso dramatic performance.

Ultimately it reminds us that for all the polish and permanency of the printed text, whether we are talking about poetry, drama or short fiction, we are still looking at a created artifact which perhaps sometimes stumbled and stalled, before it assumed its "right" fictional or dramatic course: in this case, the traditional denouement of comic drama, the romantic pairing and exit,

"Bill and Betty (Together).  Waiter!"

And an ending, that is really a beginning.