By Brian Scott Lipton

The witty, wordy, and often wonderfully wacky plays of David Ives demand actors with remarkable vocal dexterity, physical agility, and complete fearlessness. Fortunately, director John Rando has recruited such a quintet – Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod. Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson, and Liv Rooth – for Primary Stages’ production of “Lives of the Saints,” a grouping of six of Ives’ short plays, now at the Duke on the 42nd Street.

While this collection isn’t as consistently enthralling as the similarly-structured “All in the Timing” (which was given a brilliant revival by Primary Stages a couple of seasons ago), there’s plenty of entertainment to be found during these two hours. In fact, I might happily pay admission just to re-view the hilarious second-act opener “Life Signs,” in which a stuffy society matron (Hutchinson) briefly returns from the dead to share some sordid secrets of her past, much to the horror of her unhappy son Toby (Elrod) and beleaguered daughter-in-law Meredith (Rooth).

Elrod, a comic genius, shines again in “Soap Opera,” in which he plays the famed Maypole (think Maytag) repairman, who has literally fallen in love with his childhood washing machine (beautifully embodied by Rooth). This playlet is both full of obvious bad puns (nonetheless funny) and lengthy metaphorical speeches, all of which this versatile actor and his castmates handle with sheer aplomb.

Unfortunately, the other four works aren’t as successful. The evening’s opener, “The Goodness of Your Heart,” is a rather overlong sketch about the price –and –cost – of friendship, but it does allow the ever-marvelous Burton to engage in some delicious histrionics. Meanwhile, the first-act closer, “The Enigma Variations” is a mostly slapstick exercise, primarily notable for how well the cast handles its tongue-twisting dialogue.

“It’s All Good,” the most serious one-act, is reminiscent of a “Twilight Zone” episode, as a successful writer (Holmes) travels back to his hometown of Chicago and literally encounters the man he might have been (an unrecognizable Elrod) and the woman he could have married (a touching Rooth). As for the final piece, “Lives of the Saints” seems extremely reminiscent of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch as it details two elderly friends Edna (Hutchinson) and Flo (Rooth) as they prepare an elaborate funeral breakfast in a church basement kitchen.

Beowulf Borrit’s unit set design (changed only by some minimal props) works well in keeping the evening flowing smoothly, while costume designer Anita Yavich, lighting designer Jason Lyons, sound designer John Gromada, and wig designer Tom Watson all make notable contributions.

In a winter where so many of us are singing the blues, the laughter provided by “Lives of the Saints” turns out to be a truly answered prayer.

“Lives of the Saints” continues through March 27 at the Duke on 42nd Street. For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit www.PrimaryStages.org or www.Dukeon42.org.

Photos: James Leynse