Los Angeles Theater Review: GROUNDLINGS SCIENCE FAIR (The Groundlings Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on October 27, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Science Fairs are an opportunity for students to apply scientific methods to an experiment and present them at a competition. The best way to take first prize from the judges is to make a genuine breakthrough or invent something new. Judges admire creativity and innovation, and look for novel ways to process data and fresh applications for old ideas.

A show by the main company of the Groundlings is an opportunity to present sketches that have been written by actors who showcase characters that arose from improvisation. The situations that these writers use (dating, group therapy) may be old ideas, yet Groundlings Science Fair – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankelthey remain perfect circumstances to show off these bizarre and unconventional characters. However, an experiment that worked in a classroom or rehearsal setting may prove to be problematic in front of an audience. The problem with the newest outing from the Groundlings is that the situations prove to be far funnier than the characters themselves – characters which still feel like they are in a state of development and experimentation. As such, even the funniest of premises bordered on tedium by the end of the scene. The acting is always stupendous, but imagine watching nineteen mini-plays and just a handful are truly innovative. One can excuse the hit-and-miss context of a sketch show, but three of the last four main stage shows were surprisingly flat, save the superlative Groundlings Singles Cruise. As a result, Groundlings Science Fair deserves no better than an honorable mention.

Groundlings Science Fair – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelHaving just returned from Chicago, however, it should be noted that The Groundlings cast a huge shadow over the tourist machine known as The Second City when it comes to character development. The show in the Windy City, entitled Sky’s The Limit: Weather Permitting, was surprisingly well-written and touching in spots, but the food on the menu had better character development than the famed troupe. The Second City may have had superior technical aspects and rapid-fire scene changes (a welcome relief from the occasionally interminable breaks between scenes at The Groundlings), but their focus is only on situational comedy – actors rarely even changed their vocal inflections from scene to scene.

Both companies offer two-act scripted revues; The Second City, in which there are more riffs on the written material, is followed by an entire third act of improvisation, while The Groundlings only have 2 made-up scenes amongst 19 sketches. Groundlings Science Fair – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe Groundlings may devote full evenings to both short- and long-form improvisation, but it may be time to have the main company showcase only the very best sketches and incorporate more improv scenes.

It makes me wonder what exactly the job of director Karen Maruyama is. Does she not have the power to look at a scene and say, “You know what, guys? This really isn’t working. Let’s cut it and insert an improv here.” It feels as if she is forced to use every scene that she is handed. Plus, her static staging of most of the scenes in Science Fair was astoundingly uninventive.

Groundlings Science Fair – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelThis is not to say that the Maruyama touch was absent completely. There were four scenes that really came alive: one of them, “Pan Am Constellation,” was far and away one of the funniest sketches seen in the last quarter-century of Groundlings shows, but not because of character. We are in a 1970’s cockpit where two mustachioed pilots attempt to navigate a plane in heavy turbulence while a stewardess attempts to serve them martinis and light their cigarettes. The physical prowess of Laird Macintosh, Ryan Gaul and, especially, Charlotte Newhouse, proved that there is an art to comic-timing. Another had an airport FBI agent interrogate a couple (Gaul and Newhouse) who were high on mushrooms as their sober son looked on.

Groundlings Science Fair – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelEven in a particularly unfunny evening such as Science Fair, we simply must accept that this is a proving ground for who may or may not be tomorrow’s stars. The tickets are cheap and the payoff for an audience can be unforgettable. Yet more and more, the main stage shows are simply uninspired. It looks like the scientific methods of improvisation need more experimentation before they are presented at the next fair.

photos by Shawn Bishop

Groundlings Science Fair
The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on January 28, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.groundlings.com

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