at Puszh Studios

Most writing workshops seem to begin earnestly, with writers honestly critiquing each other’s works and offering ideas for improvement. Inevitably, allegiances develop. If one writer gets significant praise from another, he or she may be reluctant to criticize that person’s work. As a result, rationalizations for bad work often abound.

That may be how David Gilbert’s production of Dream House found itself onstage. This shockingly bad comedy revue was written by four of the ensemble players (plus one nonperformer, Ron Jolly), and maybe they simply didn’t have the heart–or the nerve–to tell each other the material was awful.

That Dream House was a script rather than improv is significant, not only because that approach distinguishes it from most Chicago ensemble comedy, but also because it doesn’t leave much room for rationalizing the pathetic outcome. The show’s flat lines were not the result of just a bad night onstage–they were written down, ostensibly read and talked about among the writers and actors, and rehearsed. The writers and performers lived with this material for weeks!

Just how bad was it? In one lame skit–a satire on society’s attitudes about bald men–Rick Herrejon, one of the writer/performers, asks a plastic surgeon if she does procedures other than one to help hirsute men become bald. The doctor says yes, then asks him what he’s interested in. Herrejon then delivers the skit’s apparent punch line: “Because my sister would love a fat ass.” Dream House writers could, I suppose, argue that I missed the premise of the joke, that the idea was that the values were turned upside down–i.e., in a world where bald men were considered sexy and virile to the point that men with hair want to get rid of it, a fat ass would be desirable. But even that premise is tired.

This wasn’t the worst. In a sketch about morose Scandinavian humor (huh?), Gilbert, playing a bad comic, actually asks: “How come Jewish women have so many credit cards? So they can find some meaning in their lives.” Admittedly, the joke may not have been intended to be funny, but there is nothing–no set up, no follow-through–to turn it around.

The title and program notes make much of a “dream” concept, but nothing is done with it onstage. (And I’m not buying that the whole thing is supposed to be a dream: this stuff is too pedestrian, too lame.)

Other skits involve an acrobatic cat troupe that refuses to come out to perform and turns its gentle trainers into abusive jerks, an unbelievably derivative parody of The Honeymooners, and a strange running gag about a guy with a bag of groceries.

The first time we meet this guy, a couple of punks have stolen a car radio. Two flatfoots, one experienced and one green, appear. The green one laments that they’ll never be able to catch the culprits, and the more experienced one volunteers a tip: Whenever you’re in trouble, just look around for a guy with a bag of groceries. Sure enough, the guy with groceries saw the two punks who stole the radio and is able to provide the information necessary to nail them. Pretty funny, huh?

The second time we see the guy with a bag of groceries is at a mafia murder scene, where a cop laments that the police will never be able to infiltrate the mob and catch the perpetrators. Then the green cop from the previous scene makes a suggestion: look around for a guy with a bag of groceries! Of course, there he is, lurking in the shadows, full of important tips. He also appears in a scene involving junk-bond dealer Michael Milken and another with Saddam Hussein and his foreign minister. The only thing that kept the gag from being utterly embarrassing was Randy Craig, the likable and talented performer who mercifully underplayed the guy with a bag of groceries and gave him a few subtle quirks.

Craig raised the level of almost every skit he was in by a notch, making what would have been groaners bearable. Adam Bottner is also worth mentioning, though he needed a director something fierce, as his mannerisms became more and more exaggerated as the show went on.

Also on the bill were Cindy Reichard, Heidi DeStighter, and Giovanni, three members of the band Club of Rome, who performed a handful of folksy acoustic numbers–the highlight of the show.