Your Imaginary Friends

at Puszh Studios

A distressed phone call from the Antidefamation League last summer probably prompted Your Imaginary Friends to choose a less provocative title for their new comedy improv show than 3 Shiksas, a Goy and 4 Jewboys. It may also have given them the theme for their new And We Really Hate Each Other: exploring the hurt we cause unknowingly or with apparently benevolent intentions. There is no cheap finger pointing, however–no George Bush imitations, no “everybody but us sucks” manifestos, no ham-handed stereotypes–only more of the fresh, intelligent, and cliche-free observation that characterized the 3 Shiksas show at No Exit last August.

As an example of YIF’s ingenuity, take their handling of an exercise in which a character is to be afflicted with a rare behavioral disease suggested by the audience. An unimaginative spectator saddled Michael Elyanow with Tourette syndrome, and the actor had to go with it–but he combined Tourette with narcolepsy to produce a disability not only original but funny. In another sketch three comedians who’ve made their reputations on homophobic caricatures find themselves unable to shed their cartoonish personas. “But everybody was doing “gay guy’ gags!” one of them protests. “Robin Williams, the In Living Color TV show, even Andrew Dice Clay, who is gay!” A truly sinister sketch involved a boy haunted by a nasty troublemaker whom no one else can see; he turns out to be a flesh-and-blood psychiatrist hired by the boy’s stepmother to harass him into accepting therapy for the unresolved oedipal tensions she believes she induces.

The most memorable sketch, surprisingly enough, was completely improvised during a series of scenes built around the word “wall.” The sketch began with Kat Moynihan and Karen Jensen staring at a wall, the first demanding to know why her boyfriend’s name is written on the wall with the other woman’s. At that point the boyfriend (Greg Shore) tried to enter their conversation, but was held back by an invisible wall. Jensen responded to Moynihan’s question, “My name is written on the wall with his because I can break through his walls.” She proceeded to do so, penetrating the man’s spiritual barriers and ending his isolation. The two associations of the word “wall,” as a lovers’ signboard and psychological barrier, resulted in two completely different dramatic interpretations, which were then woven together into a narrative that integrated both, demonstrating the complexity of which YIF are capable in their attempt to look upon the human condition with new eyes. (And while we’re at it, how often do we see women initiate and maintain a comedy sketch?)

Not all of And We Really Hate Each Other is this subtle, however. The “Fishboy” sketch is a facile allegory of minority rights, though it features a well-conceived performance by Jason Winer as the title character. Jensen’s song “Winnetka”–sung to the tune of “Rocky Top”–tells us nothing we haven’t already heard from many other comedians. “Once I knew a real cute guy / Who came from Cicero / But his parents had no money / So he had to go.” The routine about the talk-show host who inflicts bodily harm on his guests is no funnier this time around than it was at No Exit.

Moynihan and Jensen were part of that cast, and both have become more confident, more polished; Shore still dominates the stage with his imposing height and stentorian voice. Newcomers to YIF include the protean Elyanow, the bantamweight Winer, and the deceptively sweet-faced Amanda Weier, who plays a grade- school teacher in the throes of nicotine withdrawal, a bimbette who introduces herself by asking “Anybody here interested in a dirty girl?” and a young lady forced to choose between two blind dates from hell. Duncan Smith and Mike Ness, also new to YIF, are generally relegated to the straight-man roles–though Ness shines as a tongue-tied schnook who takes the fall for the class bully. Ness and Winer also do a bang-on impersonation of two brain-dead British rockers–remember Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”?

Despite its title, And We Really Hate Each Other is far from hateful, its humor provoking neither rancor nor ridicule but thoughtful reconsideration of views we take for granted. (There’s even a deconstructionist parody of the worst of children’s theater.) YIF’s approach, which blends highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities, is also carried out by its opening act, Flavor Channel, a jazz band whose artfully scruffy appearance and numerous electronic gizmos cannot conceal a solid classical training. One particularly raucous number has Liszt’s Liebestraume ambling through its refrain. Nothing defamatory in that, is there?