Show Theatre Group

at Victory Gardens Studio

Improv theater can run the risk of becoming a semiprivate party, where audiences pay to watch actors play make-believe and hog all the fun. Audience requests represent an attempt to bridge that gulf; supposedly the suggestions give us a stake in the action.

But in the fully improvised The Filmdome, directed by Jim Dennen, Spunki, and John McCray, the players prefer to wing it themselves, with disappointing results. (There’s a cryptic “cinematic” explanation for the title that sheds no light on what’s onstage.) In two and a half hours this fivesome–four of them veterans of the much-praised Ed shows–create a continuously unfolding improvisation, based only on what strikes their collective fancy.

It’s the improv equivalent of bungee jumping without a cord. And if there’s a thrill in this risk taking, we can’t see it.

After a not-so-obligatory warm-up and cool-down (complete with self-indulgent grunting), the performers take their seats. Then they get up whenever they’re inspired to create a scene or interrupt one and start a new one that supposedly flows from the earlier one. The problem is, they can’t seem to make their improvisation real enough to matter or absurd enough so the inconsistencies don’t distract us.

Marred by heavy miming and unfocused mugging, the first of the three 40-minute sections sagged with trial-and-error theatrics. You know something’s wrong when the funniest moment comes when the line “Will you put the ice bucket on?” is mimed all too literally. The actors bounced from one unproductive bit to another–pretending to feed each other sugar cubes, pool hustling, enjoying (more than we could) the pointlessness of small talk. The sheer fluidity of the improv prevented the plot and characters from developing into something worth following. And when the actors got stuck, they got stuck: the La Brea tar pits had nothing on this stage.

In the last two sections the Filmdomers hit on a promising story line, about a dysfunctional family at Christmas–a possibly satanic, homicidal, and embittered grandpa (Carlos Jacott), a mother (Melanie Hoopes) in a mid-life crisis, an emotionally absent father (John Lehr), and two vaguely incestuous siblings, a disturbed, accident-prone little girl (Lauren Katz) and her surly brother (Michael Ingram). Though eventually this chronicle hit a dead-end, the family friction offered a much needed illusion of conflict. And the addlepated grandpa was almost poignant as he tried to find value in his family.

Each Filmdomer has a quirk to offer: in the family chronicle Lehr mocks his own attacks of intensity, Ingram pursues his own wacky wavelength (often to the detriment of any story telling), Katz is disturbingly dotty as a new kind of “bad seed,” Jacott solidly commits to his senile grandpa, and Hoopes charms as a neurasthenic loner. But to ground these helium characters, the Filmdomers need a dose of old-fashioned discipline and a crash course in social satire.

You see the sloppiness in their most revealing problem: an inability to tighten their stories as their time runs out. (The studio theater heats up fast when the air-conditioning is off, and that stuffy air became a kind of symbol for the audience’s impatience.) The quintet floundered about at the end of each section, looking for a clincher. As a result each section outlived its inspiration by at least a half hour, and a lot of plot points were left unresolved. Some 120 minutes of aimless acting produced at best 5 to 10 minutes of salvageable comedy.

By the end, The Filmdome had dwindled into a very private party indeed, one that not even the revelers themselves could pretend to enjoy.