Lauren Katz is working under the hood of her car. John Lehr has his tanning foil out and he’s sunning himself, working on his moles. He waves to Mrs. Johnson, the lady next door, who yodels in reply, “Just goin’ inside. Got m’sausages. See ya laaater!” Turning back to Katz, Lehr finds her ogling the local divorcee as she saunters down the street. “That’s a nine and a half,” she tells Lehr as she swigs iced tea from a German liter glass. “You’re gonna be a nine and a half some day.” To which Lehr replies appreciatively, “I am one lucky little, little baby girl.”

This is disconcerting. And not just because Katz and Lehr are playing against gender–they seem to do that every chance they get. What’s disconcerting is the complexity of the information presented here–here being a completely improvised set performed last winter before a live audience in New York. The homey little detail of the sausages. The nasty hint of sexual subjugation. The fact that I know exactly what the car, the foil, Mrs. Johnson, and the German liter glass look like, even though they’re all pure air.

In a minute Joey Slotnick will show up onstage, and we’ll watch him and Lehr spend their girls’ night out at a bowling alley. Katz will reappear as a young woman named Janys (“with a y”) who bowls badly, loves to read, and gets confused about the difference between paternal affection and a broken neck. We’ll meet a whole other set of characters–also played by Slotnick, Katz, and Lehr–who will lead us through a flurry of subplots involving beer foam, a family quarrel over aesthetics, and a half-wit who quotes Renoir. The hint of subjugation will become a roar. Then we’ll all go off to Hawaii.

What’s really disconcerting is that we’ll be able to follow every bit of it.

This is Slotnick Katz & Lehr: three former Chicago actors who’ve teamed up to perform a style of improvisation where nothing ever stops–at least not while they’re onstage. Instead, the elements–characters, story lines, moles–slip into one another, proliferating, resonating, and bouncing off each other until the improvisers have created something rich and allusive, startling, funny, unpremeditated, and about an hour long.

If their approach sounds familiar, that’s because it originated here, in an ensemble called Ed. Katz and Lehr were founding members. Slotnick had once auditioned for an Ed show and lost out, but became a “huge fan” of the company’s work. (As if to compensate for his rejection, Slotnick later won the role of Sam in the comedy series The Single Guy.) Under the guidance of a onetime philosophy major named Jim Dennen, the troupe spent the early 90s mounting a series of audacious and eccentric improvisational experiments that won them a following among audiences who understood the risks if not always the rules. These were the sort of near legendary shows that called for acrobatic metaphors: Ed always performed without a net.

It wasn’t very long, however, before ensemble members started migrating toward either coast. Katz and Lehr went to Los Angeles to put on a show and met up with Slotnick, who was invited to fill out a trio. They got together at a coffee shop, where they mapped out their objectives on a napkin: a show in LA, a show in New York, a video based on their work, Steppenwolf, and then an appearance at the Montreal International Comedy Festival. So far they’ve checked off all but the festival gig, and that will be coming up this summer. The hope is that somebody in Montreal will like them well enough to finance another napkin’s worth of dreams.

Slotnick Katz & Lehr perform through May 17 at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Shows start at 7:30 Thursdays and Fridays and 8:30 Saturdays. All tickets are $10; call 312-335-1650.

–Tony Adler

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Joey Slotnick, Lauren Katz and John Lehr by Stephanie Howard.