Awake in the Night, at the Playground Theater. In 1895 French critic George Polti wrote that theater could be reduced to 36 dramatic situations. His archetypal list still circulates in photocopied form through acting and writing classes, where it’s an all-purpose brainstorming tool, but his contribution to critical theory is negligible. The taxonomy, however, is so well considered that it’s been appropriated recently by a collection of emergent disciplines: interactive fiction, cognitive science, and hence AI–apparently some perfect algorithm lurks in his 19th-century scheme.

This show employs Polti’s system as a simple framing device; the improvisation springs from just one of the situations, randomly selected by the audience. But the enterprise is still ambitious–the cast must be familiar with each permutation and produce something theoretically possible but rarely attempted: a fully improvised two-act drama. Director Nancy Howland Walker and her talented charges deserve applause for the difficulty of the project alone.

Laughs aren’t what good improv is about, but even the most genuine stuff relies on occasional giggles. Meanwhile the would-be serious is prone to accidental laughability, as the opening performance made clear. Assigned situation number 17–“fatal imprudence,” which covers everything from Pandora to Oedipus–the actors patiently developed a scenario of father and family in crisis, culminating in some psychodrama that paid off in a primal moment. But many awkward incidental sections could have used more humor while the climactic lines–“Pull up your pants, son. Now say you love me!”–were unfortunately hilarious.