BIG TV, Free Associates, at the Ivanhoe Theater. As Mark Gagne relates in his director’s notes, Big TV began as “an insider’s view” of Chicago’s improv scene–and elements of the urge to skewer remain, but they’re the weakest moments in this dark cautionary tale. Director Gagne and his nine cast members are out to gore much bigger sacred cows: the cult of celebrity, the American drive for success at any cost, and our worship of TV and irrational desire to appear on it.

The Free Associates never lose their perspective, the way the guys at Factory did several years ago with their self-serving rant Second City Didn’t Want Us. Sure, you can read Planet Comedy–the club in Big TV where people will do anything for success, even mutilate themselves–as Second City, or Nancy Block as a composite of Second City’s Joyce Sloan and ImprovOlympics’ Charna Halpern. Or you can read Planet Comedy as any successful theater where TV scouts might troll for new talent.

What matters is how well the Free Associates tell their gothic tongue-in-cheek tale, about a group of improvisers willing to stab anyone in the back to get a TV contract. Parts of the play are hilarious, especially early on when the Free Associates turn their long knives on all the comedy cliches of the last year (including Monica Lewinsky shtick). The play really starts getting good in the second act, however: it’s less obviously funny but the story heats up and the comedy is as black as in an Edward Albee play. It’s gratifying to see what fine actors these quick wits have become. –Jack Helbig