at the Apple Tree Theatre

Laugh, Inc. is essentially a Second City rip-off–not too surprising, since four of its six members are graduates of the Players Workshop. But in this city, where new comedy/improv ensembles spring up each week, most groups do try to find some way of personalizing the training and developing their own signature. So what makes Laugh, Inc. different from the others? Absolutely nothing.

The group’s format is stolen directly from Second City. The show begins by setting up the ambience of Chicago–which is ironic, because Laugh, Inc. is performing at the Apple Tree Theatre in Lake Forest. One of the troupe plays a Mayor Daley aide giving a speech about city business, and the rest of the cast is scattered throughout the audience dressed as quaint, amusing Chicago characters. They invade the stage to sing a song about Chicago and introduce themselves. They then tell us the name of the show, which in classic Second City style has nothing to do with the material: Parent Hoods, or Honey I Shot the Kids. When they need to set the next scene, someone moves chairs around and “chats” with the audience. Then we are “now taken” to the next location. The one exception to the Second City book is an exercise that belongs to ImprovOlympic.

Laugh, Inc. has its merits. All six cast members are competent performers and writers. They are evenly divided between men and women–a first for any of the Second City spin-offs I’ve encountered–and they generally stay away from the usual division of female roles: bimbo or strong woman.

Some of their material–usually the broadest–is quite funny. My favorite is the group’s Three Musketeers send-up. Three angry Frenchmen unite against Robespierre and then try to come up with a name for themselves. None are to their liking, although “The Three Guys Who Have Muskets” comes close. Eventually they sing a song based on the Mouseketeers’ theme. (OK, it sounds dumb, but they have such a good time with it.) There is an amusing sequence involving the Dumpling family, a group of inbred hillbillies who accompany themselves (quite well, I might add) by blowing on Mountain Dew bottles. There is a cute reworking of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” updated for the 80s, and a fun short satire of Bud Lite commercials.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the audience-participation improv game (the same one I’d seen at ImprovOlympic). An audience volunteer is chosen to recount his or her day. The person is quizzed and prompted by cast members to make sure that no mundane detail is overlooked. When the interrogation is complete, the audience member returns to his or her seat, and the group performs that person’s day as if it were a nightmare.

When I saw the show, Laugh, Inc.’s victim was a very young woman named Vicky who lived downstairs from her father and his girlfriend in Lake Point Tower. That day, she and her sister had driven in their Jaguar to see their mother, and to help get their future sister-in-law fitted for her wedding dress. Vicky’s five siblings, her mother, and her grandmother were all at the show to cheer her on.

During Vicky’s interrogation, the Laugh, Inc. performers showed more humor, warmth, and enthusiasm than I had thought them capable of. They were all completely at ease, and their questions and comments were insightful and witty. The resulting improv was a bit lengthy and scattered, but because it was immediate and based on our own experience of hearing the story, flaws were easy to forgive.

It’s a shame that there aren’t more improv exercises throughout the evening, as the warmth and talent the troupe displays in this sketch are not apparent for much of the show. In some cases, the material itself doesn’t quite work. There’s a sketch straight out of a junior-high talent show, about three dumb guys who turn their car wash into a beauty salon. A piece about blind referees turns into a song that even ardent ref haters will have trouble with.

Most important, however, is that the performers don’t seem very committed to what they’re doing. They sing their songs without paying attention to the words. In plain English, they just don’t seem to be having much fun. Their best work comes in the sketches that are a little wild or offbeat and that feature big, broad characterizations–their joy in performing these characters comes through.

Barbara Miluski-Lambert seems more committed to the material than some of the others, but many of the skits she’s in are not very interesting. Of the six, Paul Phillips fares the best: he’s enthusiastic and has some good material to work with. He’s a hoot as the agitated baby in the womb, and he was also innovative during the nightmare improv, choosing to play Vicky’s bloodstream after each cheese- or starch-filled meal. And he is a charmingly strange Pavarotti in the off-the-wall “Great Performances” sketch featuring Pavarotti with the Spike Jones Orchestra.

James Engel is pretty funny as Leonardo da Vinci (though his da Vinci bears a striking resemblance to Father Guido Sarducci), and Carolynne Warren has a good time as his unhappy model. It’s too bad that the sketch continues after Mona Lisa’s famous smile has finally been achieved, but it’s still one of the group’s better efforts.

Mark Amenta as a small-brained mountain musician is funny just to look at. He also did a nice job as Vicky’s primary interrogator. Sally Paulis shows off her voice and her impishness as the young star of the Dumpling clan. And all of them can play a mean bottle.

Laugh, Inc. has enough entertaining material for a reasonably enjoyable laugh-filled evening. But it seems to me that Second City already has more than enough branches.