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Review: Is Hyprov: Improv Under Hypnosis Funnier Than Your Co-Worker's Improv Troupe?

Improv comedian Colin Mochrie and hypnotist Asad Mecci team up for an unlikely show.

Asad Mecci hypnotizes a group of volunteers in Hyprov: Improv Under Hypnosis, directed by Stan Zimmerman, at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Asad Mecci surveys the 20 volunteers onstage at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Apparently, there's no shortage of people in this town willing to go under hypnosis if it means making their off-Broadway debut. "Great eye contact, people on the stage, great eye contact," he growls, deep frying his voice half an octave beneath what would seem natural. He hunches his shoulders and emits more strange mouth sounds, and we know that the hypnotism has already commenced. "The deeper you go, the better you feel," he tells them. Sure…I've heard that line before.

Mecci, who has used his powers to help Olympic athletes clinch the gold, here employs them for entertainment: Hyprov: Improv Under Hypnosis (created by Mecci, Colin Mochrie, and Jeff Andrews) is exactly what its title suggests. Mecci winnows down the initial group to four, selected for their shiny skin and vacant gazes, the tell-tale signs of a subject particularly receptive to hypnosis ("it's a science," he reminds us). He is also careful to note that he cannot make his subjects do anything they don't want to do, reframing hypnosis as a tool of self-actualization rather than a magic trick Jafar uses to get Princess Jasmine to sleep with him. It's an essential rebranding in a city that is still in thrall to #MeToo, but is quite enamored with gurus who encourage you to perform ridiculous tasks in order to live your best life. Improv comedy seems like a mild sentence when weighed against Soul Cycle and Tony Robbins.

Asad Mecci and Colin Mochrie are the creators of Hyprov: Improv Under Hypnosis, directed by Stan Zimmerman, at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

No television show has done more to popularize improv comedy than Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and Colin Mochrie, as a veteran of both the British and American version (now entering its 19th season), seems like the ideal ambassador of the form. His role in Hyprov is an expanded version of what he might do in a typical episode of Whose Line: He solicits audience suggestions to build a scene based on a preconceived structure (or "theater game"). This formula leads him to sing a duet about being an advertising project manager, or enact a noir about a strangled animator. Mochrie appears in every bit, with the four hypnosis subjects acting opposite him.

A mustachioed gentleman in a striped shirt was the breakout star of the performance I attended: His portrayal of a cowboy obsessed with the Milton Bradley game Twister carried a whiff of impending doom, proving that the funniest actors are always the ones who take their roles very seriously. "You will take this experiment very seriously," Mecci instructs each of the performers before sending them into battle. It makes one wonder if the very best actors are the ones able to put themselves in a mild trance before taking the stage.

The concept behind Hyprov is logically sound: The funniest choices are often the performer's first impulse — overthinking can kill the pace of a scene and leave an audience feeling nervous on behalf of the performer. There are no such moments in Hyprov as the glassy-eyed volunteers confidently react to each beat. "No gentiles allowed," our star hissed at Mochrie in a scene about a JSwipe date gone wrong. Such moments feel delightfully transgressive in a society in which an improperly vetted comment can kill a career. In such a climate, it is awfully convenient to have an outside force you can point to as an explanation for your out-of-bounds behavior. Mecci is like a charismatic preacher: His mere touch fills his flock with the spirit of the lord. Does it really matter that he's just giving them permission to indulge in their uninhibited impulse to writhe on the floor and speak in tongues?

Colin Mochrie, Asad Mecci, and an audience volunteer perform in Hyprov: Improv Under Hypnosis, directed by Stan Zimmerman, at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Unfortunately, the results of this experiment weren't nearly so exciting. In fact, they weren't significantly funnier than what you might encounter at the Peoples Improv Theater after finally agreeing to see your co-worker's amateur troupe — at least not on the night I attended. Hyprov feels like a 100-minute episode of Whose Line, with tried-and-true games, family-friendly subjects, and nary a word uttered that the FCC might find objectionable. It's easy to forget that the four volunteers are even under hypnosis.

This is somewhat of a climbdown from the atmosphere of anticipation director Stan Zimmerman creates when we're entering the theater: Trance-inducing pre-show music (sound design by Walter Trarbach) washes over Jo Winiarski's set, which is part TED Talk, part cocktail lounge. Jeff Croiter's lighting shifts to support each scene, demonstrating the subtle hypnotism of theatrical lighting design. Music director John Hilsen underscores the event with live keyboard music, some of which was composed by Rufus Wainwright (although where Wainwright's contributions end and Hilsen's musical improv begins, I couldn't tell you). These are solid production values for a comedy show that never rises above mediocre.

Hyprov is a safe bet for an amusing and inoffensive night at the theater. Don't be surprised if you find it slipping from your memory, as if it was all a dream.