Underground Theatre Conspiracy

at the Roxy

Usually we think of improvisational comedy as offering the artist a great deal of freedom, but watching the Underground Theatre Conspiracy’s Batman Died for Our Sins (“76.4 percent improvised”) at the Roxy, it struck me just how restrictive and stifling the conventions can be. One such convention is audience participation, so this five-actor company did several skits based on audience suggestions: the “diminishing returns” exercise, for example, in which the scenes get progressively shorter, and the “change of condition” exercise, in which characters switch emotions and physical dispositions every few seconds. And what did the audience suggest: For emotions: lust, orgasm, PMS, paranoia, and “excessive patriotic fervor.” Occupations: hooker, politician, drug dealer. Situations: alderman under investigation, the Newlywed Game. Characters: Jim Wright, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Eubanks, Richard Daley, Dorothy Tillman. In other words, the same stock types and cliched situations designed to produce the same shtick we’ve seen every other improv-comedy troupe do to death.

Which is too bad, because the 23.6 percent of the show in which the audience did not have a hand was remarkably fresh and original. The “Menial Boy” song, a parody of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” is alone worth the price of admission, and then there are the offhand but scientifically accurate nuclear-meltdown sketch and a series of routines parodying O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” The members of UTC (and their spirited piano man) are intelligent, imaginative, talented, and surprisingly unjaded, rarely falling into the usual format–the actors pull up two chairs, wave their hands, and scream–in this kind of comedy. But they were too often locked into a structure by an audience who had already decided what they wanted the finished product to look like. “Hasn’t anybody here ever read a book?” asked the actor soliciting names of “famous people,” bringing forth a feeble “Ayn Rand” from a corner of the room. No Charles Dickens, no Edgar Allan Poe, no Mark Twain, no Norman Mailer, no Allen Ginsberg, not even Judith Krantz or Stephen King. And there is potential in literary humor–I once saw a comedienne bring down the house with an American Express commercial featuring Emily Dickinson: “I don’t get out much, but when I do, I carry . . .”

So what’s the UTC to do? Scrap the improv and go with scripted material exclusively? Restrict the audience to those who read more than People and watch more than soaps? Why does anyone want to do improv in this city anyway, where every stage bigger than a latrine stall has an embryo Second City on it? I don’t know the answers, and I’m glad I don’t have to make the decisions. I know, however, that there’s a lot of talent and some damn fresh and funny stuff in this team, and that there could be much more of it if audiences took a little time to do their warm-ups before getting into the act.