SURFACE DWELLERS and THE FACTORY ALL-STARS LATE NIGHT FIASCO, Factory Theater, at Footsteps Theatre Company. Given the Factory Theater’s amazingly high productivity–over 40 original plays and improvised shows in the past seven years–it’s a wonder that the company can continue to deliver good work so consistently. No one knows how to milk a one-joke premise better than the pop-culture junkies at the Factory. But even a well-oiled machine is bound to break down once in a while, and that’s pretty much what’s happened with Surface Dwellers, Scott Oken and Ernest Deak’s comedy about a female rock group that reluctantly fills in for Wang Chung at a high-society gig in order to scrape together enough cash to record a demo.

It’s not that Surface Dwellers is bad; it’s more like a near miss. As expected, the performances–especially Heather Donaldson as the quartet’s wisecracking singer and Nick Digilio as the philandering knave Nigel Van Ampersand–are inspired. And Matt O’Neill absolutely steals the show as a butler obsessed with the Cleveland Browns. But Oken and Deak’s script, an attempt to cross estrogen-drenched fare like Josie and the Pussycats with the madcap high jinks of A Night at the Opera, runs out of steam early in the proceedings.

If Surface Dwellers is simply in need of some fine-tuning, there are some major kinks to be worked out in The Factory All-Stars Late Night Fiasco. The premise behind this late-night improv jam, based on characters, locations, and situations from past Factory shows, is solid. But the show’s postmodern approach can be frustrating for anyone who’s never seen such hits as White Trash Wedding and a Funeral, Alive, and The Barbara Walters Interviews. On the night I attended, the six improvisers (culled from the cast of Surface Dwellers) focused their efforts on staying in character, throwing out the window most of the standards of good improv: building relationships, limiting denial and questions, and raising the stakes. The Factory has created some pretty high standards for lowbrow comedy, and this type of lazy, uninformed improv is a grave disappointment. –Nick Green