KPBS AIRDATE: February 21, 1996
Remember when comedy was King? When there were funny-folks all over town, and you could find a comedy club in every community? Well, that was the eighties. And then along came Cable, and Comedy Central, and carloads of others, and soon we had more stand-up than we could sit through. The live comedy scene took a serious nose-dive. But that didn’t stop Mark Anderson, principal owner of the chain of comedy clubs known as The Improv, one of which used to haul ‘em in for howls in Pacific Beach.
Now Anderson has a new idea, which he tested out in Tempe, Arizona, but is officially trying out in San Diego’s own Gaslamp Quarter. The OffBeat Theater, as Anderson and Artistic Director Michael Ari Wulffhart put it, is a “post-modern playhouse” that will feature sketch comedy, neo-comedic solo performances, variety acts, humorous music acts and even full-length theatrical pieces.
Anderson, who also happens to be a licensed psychologist, commissioned, appropriately enough, a theatrical piece called “Shrinks,” by award-winning playwright Nicky Silver, who’s more than a little obsessed with mental health and its so-called facilitators, as well as with the known source of all evil, the diabolically dysfunctional family. Local audiences have been treated to two very darkly humorous, oddball Silver productions, “Fat Men in Skirts” at the Fritz and, if you were lucky enough to catch it, “Pterodactyls” at South Coast Rep. This Friday, the Fritz opens another Silver opus, “Raised in Captivity.” These three are provocative, unnerving, funny in their deliciously twisted way.
All of which cannot, unfortunately, be said about “Shrinks.” It is silly and repetitive, basically a one-note song (which is also true of most of the accompanying tunes). None of this is helped by Michael Wulffhart’s manic direction of a cast that seems to have graduated, en masse, Summa cum Louder, from the Screaming Meemie School of Acting.
The only modicum of control is at the center, in Barry Barger’s relatively low-key, helpless portrayal of Ned, a neurotic shlepp who’s offended by his own genitals and obsessed with J.D. Salinger. After proceeding through a monstrous series of shrinks, each crazier than the last, he winds up in a loony bin, which is populated by the likes of Sybil, “Psycho’s” Norman Bates, “Oklahoma’s” Jud Fry, and a female version of the horse-blinding Alan Strang from ‘Equus.” This unlikely scenario highlights Randall Dodge’s antic physical comedy and Kim North’s chameleon versatility as the multi-personalitied Sybil. But overall, the script isn’t funny enough, the lyrics aren’t clever enough, the songs aren’t quirky enough or melodic enough.
But the packed-in audience, munching on vegetarian delicacies from the attached Wild Side cafe, and tanking down plenty of booze, seemed to be having a rip-roaring time.
As for me, I’m seriously looking forward to the next Nicky Silver this weekend, and also anticipating bigger, better and funnier things from a delightful and most welcome new venue that deserves to do well — if it delivers the comic goods.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.