Buy-one-get-one is usually a great deal, but as we learned Tuesday night, sometimes there’s only one good product out of the two. Upright Citizens Brigade’s doubleheader offered loads of gut busting guffaws with first act GUMP, but only mild laughter from second act Strangers Wanted.
Using Forrest Gump as a skeleton base, GUMP’s two-person skit condensed the movie to a half-hour while taking vast liberties with the story’s plotline. It doesn’t sound all that cutting edge or even funny on paper, but the second Upright Citizen Brigade (UCB) improv comedians stepped on the stage, there was a sense of fun that quickly caught on with the audience. It was hard to keep a straight face watching a man pretend to be the white feather that opened the Gump film, but it became simply impossible not to laugh when things quickly spiralled out from there. The show hopped from scene to scene so rapidly that laughter dying out from one bit was overrun by guffaws over a new ridiculous scenario, made all the better by the vaguely familiar connection to the Hollywood version.
Even if the two leading men Matt Dennie and Josh Sharp hadn’t so funny, the show could have easily been redeemed by it’s leading lady, Jenny, played by Aaron Jackson, another UCB alum. From the way he pronounced the word beautiful to his exasperated eye rolls, he had folks crying with laughter. The infamous ‘“Run Forrest run” line took on new meaning when it was shouted at Forrest as a solution to being late — running is faster than walking after all. In the scene he was late because the bus he was on crashed into a deer – and Dennie convincingly, maniacally played every person on that bus from driver and passengers to the deer itself in a whirlwind montage. The whole skit didn’t exactly make sense, but it was played with such glee, that the only bad moment was when it was over.
For act two Shannon O’Neil, a fearless improv comedian, took the stage and recruited audience participants to create her entirely unplanned act. But the premise could have used more polish to coax steadier laughs from the crowd.
O’Neil, who clearly has nerves of steel, quickly learned that plastic is actually stronger than steel. This tidbit of information was gleaned as she questioned the first man who volunteered to sit on stage and awkwardly discussed his background in chemistry.
Behind her sat her ‘band’ and ‘sidekick’, all audience members who stepped up to the task. The keyboardist was actually the guest’s son and he told a lightly amusing anecdote about his dad’s experiments going awry during his childhood.
It was pleasant enough fare, mildly interesting, but it had so much more potential to be both fascinating and funny, if only O’Neil could have tightened up the narrative. While that might seem contradictory to the improv premise, a bit of planning could have gone a long way. Some research to narrow the field of guest participants to those with good stories or perhaps more preparation and direction from her sidekick and band would have helped them add more joviality, as opposed to a sense of unease. They gamely chimed in on occasion, but the effect was distracting and not always funny. The sidekick had a tagline — again, suggested by the audience — and he adeptly chimed in saying ‘Just like my first time’ on occasion. It was the perfect reprieve from the somewhat dull interviews and offered O’Neil a quick blast of laugh from the audience and an opportunity to escape the conversation without being too jarring.
Despite the low energy of the show and sporadic laughter, O’Neil was relaxed and appeared to be having fun. She didn’t shy away from awkward pauses and had the occasional quip that showcased an understanding of comedic timing, but it was not enough. She was not a large enough presence, not manic or goofy or uber-sharp, so instead, she’s just nice and funny. The kind of person that would make you laugh over a beer, but it simply didn’t translate to the larger platform of the stage.
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