JUSTICE IS SERVED, Grounded Theatre, at the Playground. Improv is working when it seems impossible that a script doesn’t exist–when pattern becomes design and an authorial gestalt emerges. But if the tricks of the trained improviser or too many preconceived elements peek through, all the talent and invention in the world won’t breathe life into the performance. The mock courtroom-TV show Justice Is Served suffers on both counts. Its performers need to gather suggestions less directly, not just come out and ask for them, clipboards in hand–the audience sees exactly where it’s being led. A stickier problem is the rigidity of the show’s model, which exacerbates this failing. Every scene must star idiot plaintiff and idiot defendant refereed by curmudgeonly judge, so most of the variation is confined to the cases’ particulars–and guess where those come from, completely uncamouflaged. What results is a predictable, flat game of Mad Libs; when I attended, a single audience member was allowed to entirely dominate the suggestion round, making things more scintillating still.

The likable cast is fortunately better than the vehicle. Barbara M. Lundquist, Tom Gronowski, and Inda Craig-Galvan played reasonably convincing crank litigants. Karen Elyse Rosenberg and John Anthony Schultz made a nicely embittered Wapner/Llewellyn duo. And Kevin Michael McCauley’s adaptable pseudo-Newhart shtick scored laughs with almost every utterance. But the show’s structural flaws are too deep to be remedied by the cast’s execution.

–Brian Nemtusak