at the Folio Theatre
In a world besotted with television, why would a young theater company decide to use its time away from the box to create ersatz TV? That was the question that kept bedeviling me during Twenty Nothing, Jeff Leiber’s mildly diverting, indifferently performed one-act, one half of the evening of late-night comedy called “3D TV.”
There is nothing in the least satiric about Twenty Nothing. The premise is so pat and trendy–a Chicago apartmentful of Generation X-ers of both sexes deals with life in the big city–it could pass for a real sitcom. Leiber has nothing to add to all the tiresome discourse about Generation X. And the problems the characters face in Twenty Nothing–how to ask a girl out, how to deal with a pushy roommate, whether or not to have a Valentine’s Day party–are trivial compared to those faced by my dispirited, broke, underemployed 20-something friends.
Of course, as the folks at Seinfeld prove every week, a weak premise does not necessarily make a bad show. Still, Twenty Nothing is no Seinfeld. The major issue in the March episode of Twenty Nothing–a new episode will appear monthly–is whether nebbish Adam Levine (“Why don’t girls like me?”) will get up the nerve to ask Tina out. Michael Shapiro, who plays Levine, would have to be a comic genius to make this hackneyed problem seem fresh. And unfortunately he isn’t. He’s not bad, but like everyone else in the show, he doesn’t seem to know how to exploit the comedy in Leiber’s script. They all deliver their lines with the sort of flat, bored tone of actors who have overrehearsed. A couple of potentially marvelous comic moments–most notably a discussion of how all the roommates are going to vote on the proposed Valentine’s Day party–simply collapsed because lines were read wrong.
Leiber and company could take a lesson from the second show on the “3D TV” bill, Taboo Talk. Based on a premise perhaps even more worn than the one for Twenty Nothing–a fully improvised takeoff on talk shows–Taboo Talk on the night I saw it was so lively, intelligent, and hilarious that the fact it had only a smidgen more to say about television than Twenty Nothing did didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, this work redeemed what had until then been a fairly dreary evening.
The difference between the two shows was entirely a matter of spontaneity. Two weeks into the run, Leiber’s cast seemed already a little weary of the material, while the folks who do Taboo Talk approached the show with the fearlessness of experienced ad-libbers. Taking as their jumping-off point a too-clever-by-half parodic talk-show topic based on an audience suggestion–“people who think they are cartoon characters”–the Taboo Talk troupe transcended all the easy laughs such a topic might have inspired.
Talk-show host Jack Sanderson and the rest of the cast earned considerably harder but more intellectually honest laughs by adhering closely to the tabloid talk-show ritual–glib host introduces guests one by one, takes incendiary questions from his hotheaded audience, and if the questions prove too tame stirs up the pot with a few incendiary questions of his own. This show provided an accurate, pointed satire of a much-satirized form.
All concerned clearly have the taste and restraint to let the jokes build over the course of the show. Instead of winning a lot of quick, empty laughs in the style of Robin Williams, with imitations of familiar cartoon voices, this witty crew began by introducing people who in no way resembled the cartoon characters they thought they were. Sanderson’s first interviewee was a sullen man claiming to be Aquaman–but Ian Reynolds looks no more like the watery superhero than I do. Only two-thirds of the way into the 40-minute show, once we’d already met a woman who thought she was Woody Woodpecker but refused to do his trademark laugh, were two excellent cartoon mimics introduced: Paul E. Mullins, who does a marvelous Popeye, and Michelle Greco, a veritable Mel Blanc of cartoon voices. And by that time this talented pair were just icing on the cake.