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The Nuclear Family logo
Stephen Guarino, Jimmy Bennett, John Gregorio,
and Matthew Loren Cohen (with keyboard)
are The Nuclear Family
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Improvisation is theater's white trash cousin. It can be fascinating, funny, and wonderfully surprising but, by its very nature, the product can never consistently be the ripest fruit of the creative tree. Improv has more in common with sports than it does with theater, insofar as every sporting event is different and there is no guarantee of how it will end. Also, improv has much in common with the circus; both involve a good deal of clowning, and improvisational performance can certainly be considered a high wire act.

These thoughts are inspired by The Nuclear Family, the not-so-inspiring show at The Zipper's Belt Theater. In one respect, this entertainment is different from other improv shows: The only audience interaction comes when the cast members ask three patrons to choose which one of the three male actors will play a father, a mother, and their child. Those theatergoers also get to name the characters, and one gets to decide if the child will be a son or a daughter. After that, the actors are entirely on their own; we can't toss them any curves, surprises, or obstacles to overcome. As an improv concept, The Nuclear Family is a bomb -- but, as a marketing concept, it's very clever. Performing a different improv every night on the subject of "the family" is something everyone can relate to.

The Nuclear Family has three actors and a musical director. Ah, you didn't know this was a musical? The family members begin their day (and the show) at the breakfast table and end their day (and the show) at the dinner table. In between, the actors improvise their way through whatever nutty concoctions they can muster, including faux show tunes and on-the-spot choreography. They constantly change characters by grabbing a variety of wild wigs from two floor-to-ceiling hair trees.

The show we saw coupled a Bat Boy-like tale with a story of three housewives who have goofy super powers. The two plots never came together. There were moments of high hilarity but more frequent metaphorical thuds as one actor after another fell off the highwire. The only net was the goodwill offered by the audience, prompting the players to try again.

Jimmy Bennett towers over his compadres, both literally and figuratively. This tall, beefy fellow is astonishingly talented: He possesses a powerful musical theater voice, he moves with impressive comic elasticity, and he's the quickest on the uptake in this group. His closest competitor is Stephen Guarino, who sings beautifully, dances with surprising precision (as compared to the way Bennett dances, which is funny all by itself), and he has solid comic timing. The third member of the gang, John Gregorio, has a few tricks to fall back on when he gets in trouble but is the weakest link here. Off stage, Matthew Loren Cohen displays a nimble mind and even more nimble fingers, improvising music for his players even as they improvise lyrics. Don't expect Rodgers & Hart; the lower your expectations, in fact, the better off you'll be.

The Nuclear Family was not very funny on the night we attended. However, the talent level suggests that the actors could be hilarious at any given performance. They bounce around the stage with increasing velocity as the show goes on -- colliding with each other, rebounding off walls, and careening around the two wig towers like atoms attempting to set off a chain reaction of laughter. Cold fusion was the result when we were there, but maybe you'll be luckier.

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