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Peter Gwinn and Gee Lutz

Pictured: Peter Gwinn with illustration.

When the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre pairs two shows together, they usually are complementary in some way, whether they are sketch shows, one- or two-person shows, or improv shows. With the pairing of GeeLutz and Peter Gwinn’s The Confidence Ladder, the contrast couldn’t be more glaring.

That contrast comes from the constant refrain of Gwinn’s director, Michael Delaney, when he teaches improvisation, about playing to the “top of one’s intelligence.” Gwinn does just that with the characters in his one-man show, while GeeLutz, the pairing of Sarah Gee and John Lutz with a series of sketches, mostly goes beneath the intelligence of the audience.

Gee and Lutz tend to go way too often to characters with tics, falling too often into the kind of shtick that happens when improvisers go for the cheap joke instead of reacting to the situation and the other performers and their characters with some intelligence. Gee plays an odd old lady on a bus whose constant refrain of “pardon me, excuse me,” over-relies on a catchphrase for the humor. Lutz plays a guy whose smoking and drinking comes only in tandem to certain music playing -- not like a character sketch where the humor comes from what they confront with their own limited capacities.

The few bits that worked in GeeLutz were the ones that brought some intelligence to the characters, as when Gee plays a stripper who is mother to Lutz’s fat over-eating son who can’t stop pulling Hostess cakes out of various pockets, because this at least resembles a relationship that could be real. Lutz really hits on something smart at one other point in the show as a magician confronting an unfortunate mishap while performing at a child’s birthday party.

Gwinn’s “Confidence Ladder” frames his characters around the idea of gradually heightening levels of confidence, starting with D&D and computer game-playing nerds, on to a TV con man, a “middle of the road” safe rapper, and later to a mischievous (and anachronistic) Abe Lincoln tossing down nachos on the audience from the Ford’s Theater box before the assassination.

This all works on an intelligent level, though, because the oddities don’t detract from reality. All Gwinn’s characters function with some sort of brains even under the weird and funny quirks. His characters aren’t overpowered by the tics that players naturally want to put into a performance to make them funny, and they are all the funnier for that.

  

   

     

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