MADCAP and Co-Ed Prison Sluts, Annoyance Theatre. Eleven years ago director Mick Napier, songwriter Faith Soloway, and an ensemble of gifted performers did something amazing. They created, mostly through improvisation, a brilliantly funny one-act musical about a group of losers hanging out in a prison that was mysteriously coed. The show spawned a host of imitations, many of which have come close to equaling the original–but in the end not even Napier has been able to reproduce the show’s inspired brilliance or its charming mixture of innocence and cynicism.

Madcap–Napier’s first production at his home theater in five years (he spends much of his time these days directing at Second City)–doesn’t come close. Its premise is much, much darker than Co-ed: a gun-wielding psychotic (energetically played by Annoyance stalwart Mark Sutton) takes over a hat shop packed with customers and begins killing people one at a time. The piece captures our current troubled zeitgeist just as the playfully rebellious Co-ed reflected its time–the empty-headed Bush era. But the portrait Napier and company paint of our selfishness and nihilism is much too troubling–and goes on too long–to be truly entertaining. Lisa McQueen’s Weillian ballads make the show even more dirgelike without making it more moving.

Co-ed Prison Sluts isn’t doing that well itself these days. Only two of the original ten cast members remain, and the current version offers just a tattered remnant of the show’s former glory.

Soloway’s songs remain sprightly and fun, but the scenes feel alternately overacted and underdone. Part of the problem is that the Annoyance’s potty-mouth humor has become such a part of our culture that words like “blow job” and “dick” don’t surprise us into laughter. But a bigger problem is that the new cast members can’t equal the comic power of the original ensemble. Even the dog who replaced Kahlua, now sadly departed, lacks that indefinable spark that can turn a good late-night show into a hit.

–Jack Helbig