Your Imaginary Friends

at No Exit

Your Imaginary Friends gets the award for best use of limited performance space. Actors have exited to and entered from outside before–who can forget Daniel Goodman’s climb through the window two stories above the corner of Broadway and Sheridan for Igloo’s Prelude to Death in Venice in ’86?–but this is the first time I remember seeing the performers take the action of the play out into the street and continue playing it there as well as back on the stage.

So I guess the honor goes to this group of Northwestern drama students, whose improv-comedy revue 3 Shiksas, a Goy and 4 Jewboys (a title that invites abuse, especially since one shiksa and three Jewboys were MIA for this performance) is currently playing in the densely packed quarters of the No Exit coffeehouse. Midway through the show, the two female IFs present, Karen Jensen and Kat Moynihan, balk onstage at playing a steamy scene with IF Greg Shore, requesting to play it with IF Dominic Hamilton-Little on the grounds that his English accent is sexier than Shore’s. In the middle of the subsequent scene, Shore bursts in speaking in John Cleese dialect and denounces his rival’s accent as bogus, whereupon Hamilton-Little, in pure Clevelandese, invites Shore to step outside and settle the matter. Through the window of the cafe we see the two having their altercation out on Glenwood, while the two women dither onstage over how they’ll finish the show. The effect is somewhat like listening to a conversation and watching television at the same time.

The sketch’s premise is as innovative as its execution. It not only uses a distinctive characteristic of one performer–Hamilton-Little’s genuine British accent–but comments on our attitudes toward that characteristic as well. This may be due in part to the leadership of director Tim Joyce, whose work with the Underground Theatre Conspiracy has demonstrated that “intelligent” and “funny” are not mutually exclusive qualities. Joyce’s experienced eye is reflected in a program note listing “Sketches You Won’t Ever See Again”–which includes such titles as “Urinals,” “Feminist Feuds,” and “Elder Abuse.”

Unfortunately, a major portion of the evening’s entertainment falls short of the standard set in this mid-show sketch. Instead, it consists of such standbys as the boy-girl encounter with dialogue made up entirely of song lyrics and the talk-show host who concludes each interview by inflicting violent injuries on his guest (a variation on the old “kill everybody” ending beloved by lazy scriptwriters). YIF also do some improv exercises for us: Entrances and Exits, in which a password signals a character’s entrance to or exit from a scene, and Diminishing Returns, in which each scene in the series is shorter than the last, until the playing time is reduced to a few seconds each.

While these exercises are valuable for the performers, they lack the focus necessary to hold an audience’s interest. At one point during Entrances and Exits, Shore and Hamilton-Little both gave the other’s password to exit, a move that would have cleared the stage and terminated the scene if both men had not ignored their respective cues–quick thinking, but cheating. During Diminishing Returns, the performers waste a lot of time attempting to set up a story line instead of launching immediately into a conflict, which is what makes a skit funny.

Some of the show’s flaws could be easily corrected by more practice, but others are endemic to modern improv. During Entrances and Exits, two of the men get caught up in repeating a female member’s password in such rapid succession that she doesn’t know if she’s coming or going. In another sketch, Shore gets to play Charlton Heston because he can narrow his eyes and pull the corners of his mouth back, but Jensen gets to play the Duchess of York only because she happens to have wide cheekbones and fluffy red hair. This subtle sexism may exist because our culture encourages men but not women to make funny faces and clown grotesquely, or because stand-up comedy’s burlesque roots assume males to be kinetic and females decorative. Whatever its cause, such inequity plagues the genre all the way up to Second City.

Flaws, though, are inherent to improv. The genre is supposed to be evaluated by its potential, not its polish. And like their director, YIF seem to have grasped the theory of making comedy that’s intelligent as well as funny. In a sketch titled “The Kase Against the Letter C,” Jensen explores the ramifications of a single orthographical change–doesn’t the pope seem less intimidating as the leader of the “Katholik Shursh”? In a sketch inspired by a line offered by the audience, “I love Mona,” Hamilton-Little and Moynihan set up a lovers’ tryst in the Louvre after hours, and he even corrects her when she inadvertently mentions a work of art not in the museum’s collection.

An integral part of humor lies in finding something new in old material. Faced with restrictions on time, space, and personnel, YIF use every tool at hand–the structure of the building, the decor of the room, the restaurant equipment, the customers, even the presence of a critic in the house–to make us laugh. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not. But their childlike wonder at the world’s hidden complexities indicates that they’ll be showing us more new things in the future.