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Scenes From the Del Close Marathon

Location, Location, Location

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Improv’s roots are in Chicago and New York, going back to the 1950s, with Los Angeles coming along later as improv comedians migrated into television and film. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, formed in Chicago and transplanted to New York in 1999, has produced performers who have gone on to film and television work in Los Angeles, particularly on “Mad TV.” UCB just recently opened another theater in Los Angeles, transplanting some performers and shows to the West Coast.

In the Del Close Marathon, named for Chicago’s guru of improv who trained the original four UCB members, several Chicago groups came east to perform. And “Chicago Style,” a combination of Chicago transplants to New York including Peter Gwinn, who had a great show the day before with Baby Wants Candy, expertly tied together a running story comprised of different groups of characters in different settings. The group took detours at points, playing with Gwinn overreacting to certain actions, and commenting on sitting down to dinner on four chairs all facing in the same direction. Of course, one performance isn’t enough of an example of the style coming from a city, but it could be said that the marathon allows New Yorkers to see what’s coming from Chicago more easily, and with UCB extending its reach, maybe what’s happening in different cities will cross-pollinate and contribute to further evolution.

Paul Scheer stood out in two afternoon shows, with Owen Burke and Chad Carter in “Bruckheimer,” and with Jack McBrayer in the two-man show Scheer-McBrayer. Scheer hit a stride as a neighbor to Carter and Burke as father and son who keeps popping in as the other two tried to work out some issues between them. The neighbor prematurely deems the father a racist and as Carter cries after telling them he’d salvaged parts of the car in which the mother had a fatal accident, “My tragedy is your hobby.”

With McBrayer, Scheer found and escalated an absurdity in jobs as air traffic controllers whose bickering quickly causes problems for planes in the air. The duo discovered this as the names of airlines they controlled became more and more outlandish. The laughs Scheer got ratified his choices in both shows.


Stand Outs

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Baby Wants Candy proved to be a highlight of the Marathon with its all-improvised musical taken solely from an audience suggestion for the title, which turned out to be “Little Hitler’s Dreamworld.” From this alone, the group which included Peter Gwinn, Bob Dassie, Jack McBrayer and Craig Cackowski, delivered a performance so good it seemed like it was already written as a sketch.

They constructed a clear plot in which Hitler (played by McBrayer) started out as a good-natured, simple young orphan who is gradually transformed by the head of the orphanage and others into what he becomes. With a piano player backing them, the group invented musical numbers like one in which the orphanage head, played by Gwinn, convinces young Hitler the only ice cream should be vanilla. Others in the troupe fell quickly into roles like Eva Braun and a duo of a Jew and a gay man trying to escape from a concentration camp. Dark material like this could easily have fallen flat but the group put it across with enough panache and underlying sarcasm, coupled with parody of musicals themselves, that it worked.

Respecto Montalban scored with unlikely elements woven together -- stories on separate tracks of a serial killer motivated by a hatred of polka (Rob Riggle of Saturday Night Live), the killer’s crazy father (Paul Scheer of Best Week Ever) and the one who trains the killer to be a stealthy assassin (Jackie Clarke), along with the tale of an aspiring polka dancer who will become a target for the killer. Riggle can deploy a Sam Kinison-like scream or screech from beyond the grave, which he doesn’t get to do very often on SNL, but here it was perfect for raging, “POLKA!” before he starts simulating breaking necks.

In early evening Saturday, the Upright Citizens Brigade itself (Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler) did a performance with a lot of “meta” twists and turns. UCB, as in its regular Sunday night Asscat shows, often uses monologues between scenes, and in this show they went meta as Walsh’s criticism of Roberts’ monologue as boring forced a group meeting -- not once but twice -- in which they ended up riffing on bits they had just performed.

Naked Babies -- Brian Huskey, Seth Morris and Rob Corddry of “The Daily Show,” ended up relying on Corddry’s mugging, not that that’s a bad thing though, because he uses that well. But the stories they wove -- a guy taking a test drive kidnapping the salesman with him for days, and three friends lost in the woods having to huddle for warmth -- did not crackle with intensity at quite the same level as Respecto did later in the night.


Going Meta

Friday July 22, 2005

Improv can never be perfect. Even when it’s great or even when it’s genius, mistakes are made. In the first night of the 7th annual Del Close Marathon at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and the adjunct Abington Theater, some groups and combinations found the humor in the reactions to mistakes.

“The Sunshine Gang,” featuring Chad Carter, Chris Gethard, Brian Huskey, Billy Merritt and Bobby Curious, performs its improv all in the context of a WPA-sponsored performance group touring Depression-era work camps in 1934. Some scenes suffered from repetition, but the Gang pulled out of this by stepping out of the scene, remarking on the setting of the back of a bakery, and turning the imaginary scenery around to continue the scene from the front of the bakery. One member blurts out “heighten it,” meaning of course raising the stakes of the scene … and we learn the bakery has caught fire -- and Huskey screams in exaggerated terror. The Gang turned what’s sometimes called “meta” -- commenting on the Harold improv format within a performance -- into its salvation.

Later, Merritt, with two members of the recently disbanded troupe, The Swarm, made a post-farewell farewell in the marathon. Merritt, with Michael Delaney, turned the Harold into a test of Delaney’s will that the audience could pick up on as Merritt played hopelessly dumb, not knowing what an extension cord is in a scene involving electrical repair. Merritt threw in a lot of odd and dark non-sequiturs like a character named Lindsey Buckingham who wasn’t the actual Fleetwood Mac singer, and a soup of white blood cells being served in a restaurant. Merritt’s monkey wrenches ended up giving the performance an Abbott & Costello-like tone, with Merritt clearly Costello to Delaney’s Abbott.

In The Shoves’ set at the Abington theater, Sarah Burns stood out even more than usual playing a drunk whose drunkenness sent her not reeling but into a free-floating insanity in which her executive character appoints someone as “President of My Mind” and mercilessly keeps her secretary on pins and needles with commands like “Put something in my hand so I don’t make it into a fist.”

Monkeydick managed to walk another difficult line of taking on a previously seen character from TV or movies -- in this case the odd choice of Tim Conway’s Dorf character -- and making it work by keeping it consistent with the warped world they created in their performance.




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