THE ARTISTS FORMALLY KNOWN AS OUI BE NEGROES, Oui Be Negroes, at the Playground, and THE PLAYGROUND, at the Playground. Del Close’s death changes nothing. The battle still rages in improvisation circles: Is improv an art form in itself or just a tool for creating more traditional theater? Both sides of the debate are likely to find plenty of ammo at the Playground, a venue–not a school–devoted entirely to long-form improv. Those who think improvisation is, at best, a kind of brainstorming can leap on the myriad misfires that were part of both the shows I saw. But there were also sublimely inspired moments of the sort that keep some of us at least believing in the Holy Grail.

It was thrilling to see Oui Be Negroes–a mostly African-American improv troupe headed by Shaun Landry, who’s married to the group’s one white member–create two fully improvised one-acts skewering some of our culture’s sacred cows. Not all the work was successful, however; the most specific jabs worked best, such as Cordell Pace’s killing caricature of an African-American preacher. And not all the performers were equally “on” the night I caught the show. Some faded into the background, notably the likable Nicole Tinnin, while Landry commandeered the stage a bit too often, trying to control scenes that would have been funnier if they’d been allowed to unfold naturally. Still, this talented, funny troupe proved again and again that they have something to say and the ability to say it.

The Playground’s prime-time show is more of a mixed bag. But that’s intentional. By presenting four troupes a night–each one given 30 minutes–the Playground co-op (made up of some dozen or so improv troupes) virtually guarantees that at least one group will be pretty good and at least one will really suck.

The night I caught The Playground the first team on the bill, Punch a Horse, wasn’t even remotely entertaining, making every improv mistake in the book–denial, poor taste, pointless exposition. But Mission IMPROVable and Judo Intellectual offered the kind of intelligent, witty, well-structured work that would have made Del proud. –Jack Helbig