The Mantasticks: Live at the Gardens, at Victory Gardens Theater. As straightforward a slab of sketch comedy as you’ll find, the brutally workmanlike Live at the Gardens is a case study in the pros and cons of improv-inflected revues. On the one hand, the Mantasticks undeniably know their way around a joke. On the other, they’re so well schooled in these mechanics that every idea, whether desperately offbeat or tried-and-true, threatens to dissipate into a comedic equation. But rather than turning up the volume or jiggering the show’s structure–like a host of starry-eyed troupes that strive to bring freshness to formula in such ways–these guys dish out their shtick like the meat-and-potatoes fare it is.
Highlights include a riff on a couple’s mutual resentment, unleashed during a roller coaster ride; some surefire jackassery involving our tallest, funniest president and a supersized stovepipe hat; and a scene in which a son comes out straight. In some ways the deader bits are more impressive, however. With a grimness bordering on perverse pleasure, the Mantasticks attack their weakest material ferociously, often finding through sheer will Kaufman-size guffaws where it seems no laughs are to be had.
Patrick McKenna directs a stalwart cast of talented mugs led by Doug Manly, Christian Olson, and Wayne Graham; onstage accompaniment from a three-piece band keeps the slightly overlong revue from feeling painfully so. It ain’t filet mignon, but then sometimes nothing hits the spot like a greasy cheeseburger.