at the Shuman Theatre

When an improv group says it’s really different, well, I’m yawning. That was my attitude about seeing Ed, the new troupe at the Shuman Theatre, above the Wrigley Side bar. I was sure this would be another bombastic, dumb, cliche-ridden–and probably racist, sexist, and homophobic–comedy show.

But to my surprise, that’s not what happened. It’s not that Ed is that different–in fact, the troupe’s extended improv-based scenes resemble Del Close and Charna Halpern’s Harold. But to my delight, Ed was genuinely funny.

Like most improv, Ed started with a suggestion from the audience. The night I attended, the audience deemed the two leading characters former lovers. From there, the Edsters built scene after scene around Tyson, who ran off to a monastery after getting his heart smashed, and Cecily, who ran off to a lesbian relationship after smashing him. (Needless to say, all puns were intended.)

Periodically new actors came onstage and tagged the old ones, building the next scene from a word or situation created in the previous installment. What emerged at the end of the evening was a hilarious play about coupling–in all of its variants. We were taken to Tyson’s monastery, Cecily’s parents’ house, an ice skating rink, a lesbian bar, a ski resort, and a steam bath. That many of the situations weren’t resolved by the end of the second act didn’t really matter: most of them were unresolvable, so intrinsically human and everyday in their wonder and ridiculousness that easy solutions would have ruined them.

I was particularly struck by how well Ed handled material that could have easily become political or offensive. The group is so character driven that it never let the topics overwhelm the show. The finished product was biting and smart. It had plenty of sexual innuendo, religion poking, and dysfunctional-family stuff.

In particular, the skating scene between Carlos Jacott and John Lehr was a scream. Lehr’s physical comedy, nuanced and occasionally sad, gave the show a wide emotional range. Lauren Katz was also excellent; by evening’s end all she had to do was raise an eyebrow and we were all rolling on the floor.

About the only scenes that didn’t work were a strange little one featuring Miles Standish and one that had Kissinger and Nixon discussing Saddam Hussein. They distracted from the larger story and simply didn’t match the level of the other material.

When the easygoing Edsters made mistakes in consistency, they acknowledged them rather than correcting them, which let the audience in on the joke and also kept the story line on track.

But more than anything, the troupe was a marvel to watch for its teamwork. They were patient, often buying time for one another, and willing to trust each other, knowing eventually each of them would get a good line. They really seemed to enjoy one another, and it showed in their energy. And unlike so much other improv around town, they never panicked and went for the quick hit–cheap scatalogical, sexist, or racist remarks.