Ho Ho Hum

Brave New Workshop Scrimps on the Gift of Laughter; Words Fail the Cheap Theatre

Take a look at the photograph to the immediate right of this paragraph. It is Nick Knutson, a performer in the current Brave New Workshop show, which bears one of the company's typically wordy titles, NOG! A Brave New Christmakwanzukah. I point out Knutson's face because, frankly, it is the funniest thing the BNW has to offer right now. Almond-eyed and cherub-featured, wearing his carroty hair in an unkempt mod coif, Knutson need do little more than grin maniacally and splash his countenance with a mixture of eggnog and vanilla frosting--as in the picture--and, hey presto! Hysteria.

This is worth pointing out, as it is a reminder that the BNW has a talent for finding sharp comic performers and moving them up to their mainstage productions. NOG is merely Knutson's second show with the company, and he has already developed a comfortable, laconic, elfin quality onstage. As a result, he's well cast in this production, which has him play an actual elf, fiddling with Santa Claus's computer after a Christmas Eve brownout, and later playing a diminutive rival to Tiny Tim (named, appropriately, Tinier Tim), whose bonhomie makes him an instant anomaly in the pathetic Cratchett household. And Knutson is in good company. His fellow cast members (Dan Hetzel, Katy McEwen, Jim Robinson, and Shanan Wexler) are longtime veterans of the BNW stage, and are similarly, and essentially, very funny.

As an example, Knutson has a scene opposite Hetzel in which the latter plays a Christmas-tree merchant who wears a high-crowned hat and a threadbare raccoon-skin coat, and displays the insinuating mannerisms of Iceberg Slim. Hetzel has an inexplicable fondness for depicting characters that could be borrowed from a gospel musical--rappers, pimps, and Pentecostal ministers, two of which he plays in this show--but he is gawky and bespectacled. The strangeness of his choice of roles is enough for a fast laugh, and he plays the characters boldly: In the scene with Knutson, Hetzel points out salacious elements of his Christmas trees with real relish.

Is the man in this photo hilarious or what? No, seriously: If you're not laughing at Nick Knutson, look at the picture again. Then laugh because it's so funny.
Brave New Workshop
Is the man in this photo hilarious or what? No, seriously: If you're not laughing at Nick Knutson, look at the picture again. Then laugh because it's so funny.

If the cast of the Brave New Workshop is often the company's greatest asset, it is also the source of the company's occasional failings. As is often the case with such sketch-comedy theaters, particularly those with backgrounds in improvisation, the scenes are written by the cast, and while the current BNW company are uniformly fine comic performers, they are spotty writers. Thus, the current show relies heavily on sketches with uninspired premises: familial squabbles between the Virgin Mary and her ambivalent husband, who sees himself as something of a cuckold; the discomfort of having Christmas dinner with the family of your significant other (which inspires two separate sketches); angry holiday letters written by harried housewives. The last premise, I should point out, inspired David Sedaris's uncommonly bleak short story "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!", after which it should have been retired.

Additionally, the current show uses a blackout structure, simply lowering the lights between sketches, abandoning the weird and ingenious segues that have served previous productions so well. The past half-dozen shows have had a forgiving, loosey-goosey structure in which scenes bled into each other, actors would step out of character and directly address the audience, and sketches were played at a breakneck speed that emphasized their best points (funny actors) while burying their failings (as in this show, weak premises). But here, with the blackout interstices, the feebleness of individual sketches is pressed into stark relief, and the production takes on the quality of an infrequently amusing wind-up toy: Turn the key, set it rolling, and watch the predictable series of spins and lurches as the plot conceit winds down.

 

In the meanwhile, Cheap Theatre has a week left on the run of a production that shares with the Brave New Workshop a love for wordy titles: The Sad Misadventures of Patty, Patty's Dad, Patty's Friend Jen and a Bunch of Other People, by Allison Moore. And what a bonanza of unexpected premises crop up in this 90-minute show! There is the heartbreak of aphasia, a brain impairment that blocks the sufferer from using language; there is a best friend with superpowers; there is a coffee-shop employee who cannot stop babbling horrific stories about mutilation; there are silver boots with the power to cast their bearers across space and time; there is an extended discourse about sophisticated macroeconomics. Any one of these could provide inspiration for an entirely unexpected comic sketch--indeed, any one of them could make for a decent full-length play.

Moore packs them all into one script, however, in which economist Patty (a weary Michaela Kallick) must tend to her aphasic dad (a muttering James Banick) while the remainder of Moore's disconnected plot points swirl around her--often literally, as pop music plays and the cast launches into lethargic dance routines. Moore has enough craft to keep each of her dotty elements separate and clear, but evidently lacks the ability to give them different weight. And so Patty's strained relationship with her father seems at least as important as her ambivalent relationship with her magic silver boots, and, in the end, none of these seem particularly important at all.

 
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