Dyanmite Fun Nest

and ImprovOlympic

ImprovOlympic Theater

Way back when, there was something called charm school. In more recent years, there was group therapy. It seems that every generation has its own method of converting unsteady, timid individuals into self-assured members of society who can excel at public speaking and cocktail conversation.

This generation appears to have found its therapy in improvisation classes, which teach etiquette and cooperation onstage, if not in real life. Charna Halpern and Del Close of ImprovOlympic have often been called “gurus” of improv comedy. Like the charismatic leaders of religious cults and “I’m OK, you’re OK” support groups, Halpern and Close boast loyal followers who claim to owe their newfound confidence and inner peace to them. Though these gurus may not promise world peace or complete harmony like the Rolls-Royce-driving “Sexy Sadie” yogis of the 60s and 70s, they offer something more tangible–the skills needed to break into Second City, secure jobs shilling for Pizza Hut, and monopolize conversations at parties. The only downside is sometimes Halpern and Close’s gifted students are so comfortable onstage that they don’t know when to get off.

The best of Close and Halpern’s work can be seen in the fully improvised Dynamite Fun Nest, a collection of long scenes and innovative improv games performed by the Family, one of ImprovOlympic’s most venerable resident teams. The performers, who work together with amazing unselfishness, manage to find absolute hilarity in the commonplace, spinning out wonderfully amusing scenes from simple starting points.

In a game called “Check-In Expansion,” one of the performers reenacts the events of her day (waking up at 8 AM, riding public transportation, getting bitched at by her coworkers), upon which the cast bases an interlocking progression of skits and monologues, showing off its impressive talents at rapid-fire wit. The game “Feature Film,” in which the company spontaneously generates a movie script, was a veritable tour de force on the night I attended. Somehow, in about 45 minutes, the Family created a simultaneously prehistoric, medieval, contemporary, and futuristic cinematic masterwork about a plot to overthrow the corporation that produces Hooters’ T-shirts.

By far the best game in Dynamite Fun Nest is “Horror,” an almost revolutionary form that uses improvisational techniques to create profoundly chilling drama. Using a grim story from the day’s newspaper, the Family utilizes snippets of conversations and sound effects to reenact a senseless human tragedy. One might think that the story of the woman who fell in front of the train would be tasteless or inappropriate fodder for improv scenes, but the company treated the tragedy respectfully, intelligently, and memorably.

The only trouble with Dynamite Fun Nest is that it goes on a little too long and, on occasion, gets a little show-offy. The talent here is indisputable, but even overwhelming cleverness has its limits. One has the sensation of being strapped to a chair and forced to watch every Marx Brothers movie ever made. It’s exhilarating at first, but after a while tiresome.

Watching ImprovOlympic’s other resident companies, Faulty Wiring and Plum Dumplings, perform in their late-night weekend shows is kind of like going to a minor league baseball game and trying to figure out who’s going to make it to the big leagues. There are a few highly talented individuals who will clearly be heard from, but a great many more seem destined to plug away at their craft in obscurity–or at least they’re in need of a lot more seasoning at the minor league level.

Employing a familiar selection of games, including ImprovOlympic’s oft-heralded “Harold,” the companies I saw displayed a wildly erratic success rate clearly tied to the wildly erratic talents of their members. Two games in which the performers were called upon to create original songs were remarkably clever and inspiring. The “Harold,” on the other hand, a sequence of themes and variations on a single topic, was almost painful, yielding barely a snigger and resorting to, at worst, dreadful imitations of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in The Honeymooners.

The most notable aspect of the late-night performances is that one can often see performers’ skills improve with time. A few of the members, whom I had seen elsewhere a couple of years back, are clearly growing more comfortable with being onstage and even seem a lot funnier than they used to. Such are the benefits of good therapy.