at the Roxy and Cafe Voltaire

There must have been a time when pigeons were a novelty in Chicago, when just the sight of a couple of pigeons cooing on the sidewalk or waddling along a rooftop was worth mentioning at the dinner table. But those days are long, long gone.

I feel the same way about improvisational comedy troupes as I do about pigeons–especially the timid troupes that do nothing to stretch the form but simply generate Second City-style sketches full of ersatz Second City humor loosely collected in a Second City-type revue. Once these were a novelty, but now a comedy group has to do a lot more than serve up a pale pastiche of easy Chicago jokes, simpleminded takes on current events, and pseudosophisticated comments on adult life. Like tackling political issues too hot for the conventioneers and suburbanites who keep Second City rolling in dough. Or spicing up a revue with physical comedy or verbal wit. Or creating shows (a la the Annoyance and Torso theaters) that are funny because they stretch the bounds of good taste.

After Hours (the name of the troupe and their show) does none of the above. This new company of aspiring improv actors, all of whom graduated within the last year from the Players Workshop, is now performing its first show. And depressingly run-of-the-mill stuff it is, too, adhering so closely to Second City’s comedy formulas, dumbed down by the lower-middlebrow Players Workshop, that there isn’t a joke or bit of shtick that doesn’t remind one of similar but better shticks in past revues.

Not that I think the After Hours troupe is guilty of plagiarism. No plagiarist would make the mistake this group does: taking a worn-out premise and leaving behind the jokes that made it work. For some reason–perhaps lack of imagination, lack of daring–the After Hours players and director Tony Alcantar have allowed the traditions of the form to completely squelch the players’ individuality–those quirks, opinions, and talents that endear actors to the audience and make age-old comic situations seem new again.

Their desire to put the show together the “right way” (that is, the way it’s always been done) may explain why so many players here either fade into the background–some are literally mere extras in scenes dominated by the few assertive cast members–or play their roles too small and close to the vest. Certainly this unassertiveness is true of George Savino, Bob Dusin, and Nancy Jacobs, three likable actors who remain ciphers throughout the show–they seem to be holding themselves back.

Lance Knight, the most assertive, annoying performer, suffers the opposite problem. Someone should tell this young ham that no one likes a stage hog, and that he would do well to hide his nearly pathological need to dominate every scene, to prove each and every time he steps onto the boards how much more talented he is than everyone else. Make no mistake, Knight is funny, but he’d be more funny and charming if he’d give his fellow performers a little room.

But then Knight’s overassertiveness and others’ inhibitions are only symptoms of a deeper problem with the show: the lack of clear, inspired direction. It’s startling to think that no one here bothered to wonder whether the world really needs another parody of support groups. Or of boorish couples who talk too loudly in movie theaters. Or of wives who go on and on while their Milquetoast husbands cringe in silence.

It’s startling that no one had the taste or courage to challenge such sickening-sweet improv treacle as the sketch about the twins (one male and one female) commenting on the world outside the womb, or the one about a group of parents who fight over a game of musical chairs while telling their kids “It’s only a game.” Isn’t this why shows have directors, to tell the cast when they’ve strayed into trite territory?

To make matters worse, like all too many improv-comedy troupes before them, the After Hours players don’t seem particularly well informed, nor does anyone seem to hold any startling opinions worth repeating onstage. This obviously well-trained, well-rehearsed cast could coax only the most inhibited laughter from the rowdy Friday-night late-show audience at the Roxy (the show is moving March 15 to Cafe Voltaire).

The players redeem themselves (somewhat) in the energy and spontaneity with which they play the few truly improvised games director Alcantar has tossed in. In fact, the only time the audience really seemed to get into the show was during the playing of these games: “Professor Know-It-All,” for instance, in which a three-headed professor answers off-the-cuff questions from the audience, and “Entrances and Exits,” in which each player is given a common word and required to make a credible entrance or exit whenever that word comes up during an improvised scene.

Only during these games do we get a glimpse of how well these people have been trained in Viola Spolin’s improv method. Although clearly everyone in the cast could stand more training, with the possible exception of director/performer Alcantar, it’s equally clear that these nine actors are talented enough to have created a more original show, if only they’d had the will or the inspiration.