Free Associates

at Kill the Poets

Reviewing an improv show on the basis of one viewing can be risky: everyone has an off night now and then. The success of an improv troupe lies in its ability to foster a regular following more than in the quality of any particular performance. The Free Associates, a young and rather raw company in residence at Kill the Poets coffeehouse, is building an audience fairly effectively, judging from the performance I caught last weekend. Despite the cold and snowy weather, the room was full, the patrons acted like regulars, and the interaction between audience and actors was casual, playful, and fairly intimate. The Free Associates’ improvised shows, about 40 minutes in length, depend heavily on viewer participation, a good way to assure audience satisfaction: the more a customer invests in a show (whether it’s $50 per ticket for a Cameron Mackintosh musical or a few suggestions to an improv group), the more satisfied he’s inclined to be.

So if Talk on the Wild Side, the Free Associates’ parodic tribute to Nelson Algren, was less than first-rate the night I caught it, it at least made for decent party entertainment. It helps of course that Kill the Poets is located in the Damen-Division area, near the heart of Algren territory, and that its clientele claim familiarity with Algren’s mystique and material.

Spoofing Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, Talk on the Wild Side begins in a police station: a surly cop, played by director Mark Gagne, drags a lineup of sleazy suspects before a group of “witnesses”–the audience–who are prodded to suggest, among other things, the crime the cop is investigating and the nature of one character’s addiction. The answers last weekend were “catching snowflakes on the tongue” and “making snow angels in the intersection of Damen and Division.” With these and similar elements dictated by the audience, the seven-person cast proceeds to create an Algren-style story whose length seems partly determined by how long it takes the actors to say the word “Polack” 41 times–the number of times the word appears in Algren’s novel Never Come Morning, according to the calculations of the Zgoda daily newspaper (which called for the book to be banned as anti-Polish propaganda).

But 41 Polacks aside, Talk on the Wild Side didn’t have very much to do with Nelson Algren the night I saw it. The stoolies and hustlers and dummies and whores played by the actors were generic lampoons, more Barney Miller than Algren. The novelist’s gutter-poetry style, a marvelous potential source of humor with its alliterative resonances, was generally neglected. And except for Doug Friedman as Andy the addict, who was very funny as he struggled against his junkie’s craving to lie down in the street and make snow angels, the actors shied away from the kind of spontaneous physicality that can liberate an improviser’s imagination. Restricted by too many audience suggestions at the top of the set, the cast members were more concerned with inventing a plot than with following their instincts. To their credit they maintained consistent characterizations and never allowed the pace to lag, but the play they created was neither imaginative nor particularly funny.

The same company’s The Jo Anne Worley Family Christmas Seance takes far fewer risks and produces a few more laughs. Unlike the fully improvised Talk on the Wild Side, which at least has the element of chance going for it, this is a prescripted TV-show put-on whose content is exactly what you’d expect from its title–a mock Christmas special in which loudmouthed comedian Jo Anne Worley welcomes guests from has-been heaven and hell. Aided by her star-struck mother Shirley, her best friend Shari Lewis, and song-and-dance diversions from Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Jo Anne plays host to such drop-ins from the dead as Paul Lynde, Liberace, and Andy Warhol. “I feel like an old fag hag,” moans Jo Anne. “You’re not old,” says Shari soothingly. Later and straighter guests include Bert Convy and Bing Crosby (“Borrringggg!”); Pearl Bailey, Janis Joplin, and Karen Carpenter pop by as well. (What? No Mama Cass?)

Schlock TV being an easier target than serious literature, and flamboyant dead celebrities being easier to spoof than Algren’s closely observed small-timers, The Jo Anne Worley Family Christmas Seance is undeniably entertaining in a raucously amateurish way. But it’s haphazard and sloppy, and its impersonations are inconsistent: Sean Abley’s compulsively sardonic Paul Lynde is very funny, for instance, but Theresa Mulligan’s brassy Jo Anne only occasionally hits the mark, and Carol Eggers’s jittery Janis Joplin is just plain bad. The telling detail and carefully constructed absurdism of Metraform’s pop-culture parodies (Tippi: Portrait of a Virgin, etc) are sorely lacking here. I frankly don’t think Metraform’s directors would let a show this unpolished get onstage. Like Talk on the Wild Side, The Jo Anne Worley Family Christmas Seance works as diverting cheap comedy at a neighborhood venue. But the Free Associates need a lot more discipline if they want to be taken seriously as an addition to Chicago’s improv industry.