The dentist's drill, cheap champagne, Ishtar, mime...there are few things worse than bad improvisational comedy. The News, the latest improvisational offering by the Freestyle Repertory Theater, has all the trimmings and all the potential, but unfortunately falls into that oh-so-painful category.
The television newsroom setting of the piece has more authenticity than Ted Baxter's studio on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The small theater space is airy, yet intimate. The seven-member ensemble is a young, bright, attractive, eager team, which has apparently been well trained in theater arts. They have a stage presence--hitting their marks, enunciating, and using the roomy stage to their advantage. The ingredients for an evening of improvisational comedy are all there, except one small thing: They're simply not funny.
Short improvisations on the day's headlines make up the first half of the evening. The audience, which was sparse on this particular chilly evening, is asked to browse newspapers and magazines (readily available on the seats) and offer suggestions for bits. The stories are then presented by two news anchors sitting at a desk, with the ensemble playing field reporters and interviewees as needed. "The United States goes to war, but first this story," and "Madonna's baby is still a boy," are among the more clever quips from the anchors, who look and sound the part. Unfortunately, every time they go to a field-report, the so-called correspondents have that deer-in-the-headlights expression. Far too many ums and ahs indicated that these were not yet stream-of-consciousness, loose performers; it was painfully clear that they were searching and reaching.
A story about the Pope having blessed Pokemon showed promise as the troupe tried to take the attributes of Pokemon and show how, inside the Vatican, the same behavior was evident. The premise, however, fell flat after that initial set-up. This, if nothing else, was the ongoing theme of the first portion of the show, with premises dying slow and painful deaths. The one saving grace was a story about Mayor Giuliani's wife appearing in The Vagina Monologues, whereby an interview with a vagina made it past the initial set-up phase and headed in the general direction of humor.
The problems appear to be rooted not in the basic idea of improvisation or acting, but in comedy. The idea that point "a", (setting up the premise) needs to lead to point "b" (a comic payoff of some type), is totally lacking. Improvisational players need to have their destination in sight from the moment they start out, or they will run on like a car without a driver, with a slim chance of staying on the road--any road.
Chicago City Limits, who are a marvelously well honed improv troupe, rarely ever miss a beat, zeroing in on a payoff and using comedic tools to find the funniest way to get there. Most successful troupes, including The Groundlings, Second City, and even the shock-schlock Upright Citizen's Brigade, work together comfortably, playing off one and other, using a wealth of comedic tools, and knowing who will take the next turn. Even in alternative comedy, which generally has an alternative agenda than that of making people laugh, there is a point of destination.
The second half of the program was a well-crafted series of recurring bits centered on the Elian Gonzallez story and on Cuba. Bits included Elian and his dad versus a pushy reporter, which was poignant, if nothing else; a forced I Love Lucy routine where Lucy was taking Little Ricky on a raft back to Cuba (good premise with no laugh lines whatsoever); stowaways swimming away from sharks and cruise ships; and a lone, mildly funny bit about a couple of world travelers who couldn't get a good meal because the animals they were about to eat kept wailing a variety of sounds--and then they landed in Cuba.
Paula Boyajian, Trevor Davis, Mike Durkin, Laura Livingston, Kelly McCaffery, Adam Nowak and Anthony Veneziale are a likeable, but non-distinguishable, ensemble with plenty of potential. All they need to do--and it's not easy--is learn to explore the comedic angles of a story quickly, find a payoff, and get there with confidence.