at the Roxy

There’s a sadistic side to comedy improvisation: the audience makes the request and the comics take the lumps. They don’t get to boo our bad suggestion.

For instance, the five improv artists in Sybil’s Playhouse nearly broke their funny bones trying to dig yuks from the response to “What’s making you blue this summer?”–“When the deodorant cakes under your arm.” Out of this comic albatross they somehow extracted a wacky and unrepeatable tale set in a large castle. The troupe survived, but not before we glimpsed a terror improv artists face–entertaining an audience despite itself.

Coached by Michael Gellman and educated at the Second City Training Center, the cast offer 70 minutes of varied, mainstream improv games, the kind that make you wonder how you’d do in the same fix. In “symphony,” a game that tests concentration amid distractions, the audience gives the players different emotions and a common subject (my night it was an explosion in a cookie factory); Jonathan Pitts then conducts them in variations on the theme.

Other games: “relationship”–here a father (Peter Moor) and child (Amy Sedaris), in an exchange that turned too serious and went into a tailspin; “option,” where a scene evolves, then is frozen to allow the audience to suggest a new direction; and a “madrigal” woven from a maxim, a headline with a name in it, and a one-syllable word (our game ended with the lyric, “Lyndon LaRouche is rolling in the mud”).

Hard-core chuckles emerged from the “joke game,” where the audience cheers or boos jokes the comics have to make on objects chosen by the crowd (a corkscrew, an apple slicer); this one produced groaner puns I won’t preserve in print. The best and most difficult game, “dubbing,” had two players do voice-overs while two others provided mime (in real dubbing the action would be accommodated by the dubbers–here this was neatly reversed); the suggestion–a Japanese-language zombie musical ending in a beach blanket party–showed how Gellman’s crew can stay in character, coordinate faces and voices across a busy stage, and turn a scene on a dime. (The zombie love dance was enough to wake the dead.)

A real asset in Sybil’s Playhouse is Tom Dorfmeister, a rotund and rubber-faced jester who resembles a popular class clown. Dorfmeister opened the show with some great reaction mugs to good news that got progressively better and then catastrophically worse. Later, in a brief stand-up turn, Dorfmeister, desperate to bond with the audience, revealed a flair for arousing self-pity, then innocently refusing it: complaining about his love life, he lamented, “I thought I might turn bisexual but then I realized 100 percent of the population would be leaving me for another man.” In the endless deodorant sketch he made a hilarious plea for a man’s right to use Secret, whatever the results.

Another improv whiz is wry Aliza Shalowitz. She seems to specialize in well-targeted, sometimes very brainy hysteria (offered deodorant in the castle, she came up with, “You love me enough to give me an anachronism?”).

Peter Moor is good at aping unflappable phonies and airheads (blond hair helps with both); he also did a cunning demonstration of the difference grandiose background music can make for a comic’s entrance.

An embryonic Tom Hanks, Jonathan Pitts plays well against his natural deadpan earnestness (and did a great zombie love dance). Maybe it was an off night, but Amy Sedaris didn’t carry much weight; when a skit needed a goose, her mind seemed to be on the last one. And Doug Schiff’s busy piano provided deft support, the kind of scene-saving mood manipulation that often comes none too soon.

PS: Sybil never showed up.