By Adam Langer
Not long ago the Factory Theater raised eyebrows with Second City Didn’t Want Us, a reportedly mean-spirited send-up of that most sacred of Chicago improv institutions. Partly because the show smacked of sour grapes and partly because I thought I might laugh too hard and blow my cover as an objective journalist, I chose not to see it. But after seeing Factory’s latest opus, Michael Meredith’s Being at Choice, I understand why Second City didn’t want these players. They’re too unpolished, they’re too raw, and they’re too funny.
Unlike Second City performers, who are always well schooled in technique and rhythms, the folks at Factory are all over the map. If Second City is the dutiful Picasso of comedy, Factory is the Jackson Pollock, splattering jokes this way and that and hoping that some hit the mark. The writers and performers are not the blow-dried jocks of comedy, looking for an opportunity to break into network sitcoms. They’re a ragtag crew you’d never expect to see on TV pitching carpet or iced tea, and their scattershot approach conceals technique rather than boasting of it. Even when shows are scripted it seems the actors are winging it. It’s almost disappointing to see in their program that they actually have their shit together enough to have formed a nonprofit group with a board of directors.
Factory’s “what the fuck” approach to comedy has detracted from some of their recent work, however. One show skewering Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet and another hailing the music of ABBA in a mock tribute had their moments but felt halfhearted and half-baked. It was almost as if the Factory members, like the classic underachievers of high school, thought they were too cool to give their full effort. One began to wonder if they did need to go back and get schooled. Could Second City have been right after all?
But with just a little more effort and by following an actual script that may even have gone through a draft or two, and without compromising the playful spontaneity of its best work, Factory scores big in Being at Choice, a loud, crass, hilarious parody of 24-hour self-help seminars and encounter groups. It contains more laughs per minute than any show I’ve seen in a long, long time.
You’d think the encounter-group parody would be rather dated and overdone, a 70s kind of topic. After all, nearly 20 years ago Michael Ritchie’s film Semi-Tough lampooned est seminars: Jill Clayburgh writhed around on the floor moaning about how she hated her parents while Burt Reynolds urinated into a device called a “fireman’s friend” and a charismatic jackass informed the assembled multitude that this was “where it’s at.” Back before he was a real-live schmuck, David Letterman even did a cameo on a Mork & Mindy episode as a nasty self-help seminar leader.
But because touchy-feely New Age and men’s-movement groups are sprouting up everywhere today, promulgating everything from creative visualization to past-life regression, Meredith’s comedy feels surprisingly fresh and timely. Set in the Sir Walter Raleigh conference room of the Ramada Inn in Arlington Heights, the play concerns a 24-hour meeting of the “New Points Life Design and Growth” seminar led by megalomaniac former crack addict Mark Nyborg (Michael Mazzara), who’s part Leo Buscaglia, part Del Close, and part Wavy Gravy. Using a time-honored comedic approach–get a group of funky folks together and have them talk–Meredith introduces a menagerie of characters eccentric enough to be funny and just real enough for the comedy to resonate. Carol (Mary Booker) is a truck-stop mom who wants to quit smoking for the health of her child, Brian (Kirk Pynchon) is a self-proclaimed proud gay man who displays hints of a closeted heterosexuality, Sue (Brooke Dillman) is a repressed, suicidal churchgoing Goody Two-shoes whose soul craves Van Halen, Steve (Mike Beyer) is a self-impressed stud whose girlfriends tell him he doesn’t know how to love, Lois (Michele Suffredin) is the inevitable veteran of self-help seminars who idolizes group leader Nyborg, and Kevin, her fiance, thinks the whole thing is BS but is willing to put up with it because he loves Lois.
This is not a brilliant or particularly ambitious play. A few moments are sappy, some of the jokes don’t work or are in bad taste, and the structure is elemental–essentially a series of sketches based on Nyborg’s instructions to the seminar participants: write a letter to your mother telling her something you never told her, pretend your father’s a chair and tell him how you really feel about him, think about the one thing you regret you never finished, tell us a secret. But the characters’ responses are so unexpected and amusing and the performances so right on the money that Meredith’s simple approach is never bothersome. After all, it’s not rocket science; it’s a comedy show.
It may be that Factory’s humor is an acquired taste. I’m not sure if anybody born before the 50s would be hip to it. And you probably would have to have been at least friends with the folks who hung out in the smoking area in high school to appreciate Meredith’s completely off-the-subject riffs on Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s post-Led Zeppelin work or Beyer’s freak-out to a snatch of a Rush tune. But the energy of Being at Choice is so extraordinary and the performances so idiosyncratic yet believable it’s hard to imagine anyone going and actually having a bad time.
Mazzara is especially hilarious and wonderfully accurate as the arrogant, schizophrenic Nyborg, at one moment the sweet, hippielike provider of hugs and the next a manic ball of aggression and self-hatred. As the blossoming wallflower Sue, Dillman is consistently hysterical, and Booker as the sympathetic, self-doubting smoker finds some moments of profound realism in an admittedly cartoonish character. In previous Factory shows a couple of the performers here have shown more interest in mugging or hogging center stage than in playing their roles, but in this show they’re excellent, remaining in character and faithful to the script.
Meredith claims to be a veteran of a couple of the seminars he’s spoofing, but that’s probably not the reason the writing crackles and the performances are so energetic and heartfelt. The fact is, the New Points seminar bears a striking resemblance to a situation with which the Factory folks are all too familiar: improv classes. All the elements are present: the overcompensating, overeager students; the charismatic, bullying leader; the pantomime exercises; the interpretive dance routines. Call the show Second City E.S.T. or Leo Buscaglia Didn’t Want Us.
In his program note, Meredith apologizes for the play’s lack of “plot evolution” and “conventional climax.” And in his postshow spiel, Beyer gets up and says something along the lines of “If you liked the show, tell all your friends. And if you didn’t, tell them you saw Second City.” But these folks needn’t worry. The pay scale might be lower at the Factory, but the rewards are far greater.
The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: Bobo’s Revenge; Coffee Will Make You Black; Damon, Ring and F. Scott; He, She, It; Ice Cream; Kaspar; The Men Who Would Be King and The Ugly Duckling; The Napoleonade; The One That Got Away; The Precipice; and The Story of Ferdinand.