at the Famous Door Theatre Company


North Avenue Productions

at the Avenue Theatre

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. And improvisational comedy is sometimes just plain impossible.

For a while the folks at Ed (along with their improv friends and relations at Jazz Freddy, ImprovOlympic, and the Annoyance Theatre) made it seem otherwise. For a while it looked like Viola Spolin-based improvisation–adapted for the stage in the 50s by the likes of Paul Sills and David Shepherd and popularized in the 60s and early 70s by Second City and a host of offshoots and imitators–was going through some sort of wondrous renaissance. For a while it looked like improvisational acting had made the step (finally) from being a terrific tool for generating sketch material in rehearsals to being a performing style in its own right, with fabulous, funny, liberating shows capable of keeping an audience’s attention for 20, 30, 40 minutes at a time.

And maybe these things are still possible. But I’m not as sure as I was a summer ago, when Ed and Jazz Freddy boldly took improv where it had never gone before.

Jazz Freddy proved you could put scads of improv actors onstage and still end up with work that was intelligent, multilayered, and more or less coherent. Meanwhile Ed, always anxious to push the envelope, produced a fully improvised five-person show, The Filmdome, based on a postmodern premise so complicated I never got it straight: the stage–or part of it, or maybe the whole Victory Gardens Studio, where the show was performed–was designated the “filmdome”; inside it the improvisers played characters, and outside it they played fictional actors who played the characters inside. Every time I read about the show or had the premise described to me by the show’s director, Jim Dennen, I thought of that old ad in which a man comes out and says, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

The show was a joy to watch–witty, intelligent, crisply performed. I wish I could say the same about Ed’s current effort, Dawn Toddy. The premise this time around is much simpler: four actors and two musicians collaborate on creating a one-act improvised play. But the results on opening night were leaden, ponderous, depressing–as far from a joy to watch as liver is from ice cream.

There’s more than a touch of tight-lipped puritanism in this show. It’s as if all concerned decided that laughter was suddenly beneath them; the word “comedy” appears nowhere in the program or in the press materials, where the show is described as a “one-act improvised form.” Clearly Dennen et al meant Dawn Toddy to be good for someone, though whom isn’t clear.

The show does deserve a place in the ongoing reform, or transformation, of improv. The addition of two musicians (a violinist and a guitarist) to the cast is a brilliant move. Of course for years improvisers at Second City and elsewhere have used piano accompaniment, but rarely has it been anything more than an unobtrusive sound track. In Dawn Toddy it’s obvious that the musicians, who are placed prominently downstage in front of the actors, are meant to play an active part in creating the material. And violinist Greg Hirte and guitarist John Keeney do spend as much time initiating mood changes or heightening moments in the show as they do coming up with forgettable incidental music.

But this innovation turned out to be as much a vice as a virtue on opening night. Hirte’s marked predilection for mournful or anxious tunes virtually guaranteed that the show would never rise above the first melancholy scene, in which Melanie Hoopes and Lauren Katz played a dispirited producer and a depressed ticket taker preparing for a show they seem convinced will never attract an audience.

Ironically, Dennen’s casting of four of Chicago’s more intelligent, disciplined, and seasoned improvisational performers–Hoopes, Katz, Carlos Jacott, and Pete Zahradnick–helped undo the show. Once the overall depressing mood was firmly established, no one dared break it. Instead, each performer, like any strong improviser, attempted to build on what had come before, however unworthy, unsteady, or fundamentally uninteresting. The result was brief flashes of brilliant improvisation–Zahradnick’s witty sound effects (man drinking: “bo-bo-bo-bo-booze”), Hoopes’s infinite repertoire of facial expressions–surrounded by pitch-black improv hell.

Another sort of hell is North Avenue Productions’ Dysfunctional Family Night, an eternity of an evening, with two flawed scripts that are poorly directed and abysmally acted.

The first play of the evening, Scott Sandoe’s Texanna Rearranges the Planets and Saves Your Family From the Gates of Hell, isn’t a bad work per se, though its premise–best-selling author of self-help books is the neurotic head of a deeply troubled family–isn’t enough to keep an hour-long comedy going. Especially when the playwright insists on wringing the life out of jokes that weren’t very funny to start with (including Texanna’s philosophy that denial is the best reaction to life) and on playing various absurdist theatrical games (sudden shifts of time and place, characters who seem aware and not aware of being in a play).

Still, Sandoe, bad jokes and all, deserves a better production than this. Robert Duma’s direction emphasizes the weaknesses in the work–the obvious message, the flat characters, the so-so sense of humor–while downplaying the one quality it has going for it: Sandoe’s halfway original portrait of Texanna, a woman who has had a complete nervous breakdown, though no one has noticed.

Kathleen Puls brings some daffiness to her Texanna, but not nearly enough. Everyone concerned delivers the kind of hesitant, uninspired performance that speaks volumes about the director, his faulty concept for the show, and the incoherence of the rehearsal process.

As for the second play on the bill, Eric Stevens’s miserable one-act The Maneuver, the less said the better. Little more than a very black, not very funny comedy sketch–premise: cousin Bernie chokes at the dinner table and dies before anyone can remember how to help him–it overstays its welcome by a good 30 minutes.

Stevens unforgivably extends the play at every opportunity with lots of shtick and pointless detail. Why, for example, did he set the play on the first night of Passover of all nights? Do people choke differently at Passover? I suspect he did it for the same reason he populated his play with so many annoying, shallow Jewish stereotypes–the kvetching couple, the loud uncle, the long-suffering schlemiel Bernie–because he thinks it’s enough just to mention something Jewish to get a big laugh. Well, he’s wrong. Especially when he has nothing new or truly funny to say about the Jewish experience, the human condition, or the Heimlich maneuver.

Given such a hopeless script, director Michael Lomenick can’t do anything but bring into being the mediocrity Stevens set down on paper. To protect the more or less innocent, I won’t list the hapless actors involved, except to say that Mickey Vincent, who was so fine and likable in Avenue Theatre’s production of The Boys Next Door, turns in a performance as loudmouth Uncle Mort that’s much better than the script.