There’s something about family that touches a nerve. Even if we extol the virtues of home and hearth, it’s often the source of our later handicaps and hang-ups. It’s not all Norman Rockwell or the syrupy lyrics to “The Faygo Song.” No matter how idyllic your childhood, chances are you’ve wanted to give your family members a good crack across the mouth at one time or another.
All of this makes family great grist for improvisational comedy, and the new show from the Planet Ant Improv Colony, Living with the Sevinsens, features the archetypal family from hell, where sibling rivalry rises to an art form. Get ready for two hours of blame, acrimony, rivalry and cathartic reunion.
The Sevinsens are a sort of Royal-Tenenbaumish clan of seven siblings, each with dramatically different temperaments, who have to come together when their father, Dante Sevinsen, is hospitalized with a heart attack. The play opens in media res, with the brothers and sisters in a screaming, shouting, finger-pointing free-for-all of rage and recrimination, then backtracks and introduces us to the family.
Tim Hayden is Nap Sevinsen, a dim and dull ne’er-do-well who spends his days sucking down reefer and playing video games. Patti Taylor portrays Venus Sevinsen, a dowdy and manipulative school lunch lady who forces schoolchildren to do her bidding. Mark Mikula plays Rich Sevinsen, an aspiring artist who draws only dots. Mollie Platt assumes the role of elder sister and surrogate parent Merit Sevinsen, a headset-wearing titan of finance.
As in past Colony productions, Nick Smith is adept at playing characters as dumb as a sack of hammers. He has some meatier parts in this, notably as Fioery Sevinsen, the trouble-making jock of the family who goes to a monastery for anger management. Fortunately, he appears in other bit roles, including a pizza guy, with very good comic timing and a face so steeped in torpor you can practically see the haze of pot smoke.
Another standout is Lauren Bickers, who plays the youngest sibling, Verdi Sevinsen, an appealingly insane youngster who believes she is a human saxophone. Bickers’ grasp of the Midwestern nasal twang is without equal, and when her character starts up her human saxophone routine, Bickers makes a noise that this reviewer can only describe as a Minnesota mating call.
Jennifer Nischan has a doozy of a character in Jade Sevinsen, the bulimic lesbian police officer. With a swagger and a sneer she torments her siblings with her official authority, then comes home and tries out her new cop walks like an actor rehearsing a scene – something that gives a bit of insight into the role of acting in officialdom. Nischan also nails a Long Island accent in her other role as long-suffering lover of success-obsessed painter Rich Sevinsen.
As with many improv shows, it’s often confusing to follow what’s happening, with so many actors, and actors filling several roles. Add to this so many characters named Sevinsen, who are often addressed only as Sevinsen, and it can be a little overwhelming. But this almost seems to be standard improv technique, as though the audience must be purposefully disoriented. And audiences will be constantly distracted with cast members frenetically running on and off stage, quick sketch-work, and technical stagecraft such as spot-on sound cues, rapid-fire lighting, and shock effects. There are gunshots, blackouts, strobe lights and even a suckerpunch.
And, as with all improv, expect to see an exploration of hot-button issues, provocative themes, and those topics that saturate mass media and elicit a strong response from a general audience. Tapping into these collective bummers is part of the fun, although in an indirect, mediated way that gives the distance necessary for people to laugh at things that aren’t funny when faced head-on.
There are the usual uncomfortable or loathsome topics: Sex, marriage, lawyers, salespeople, stinky Zen babble, modern art, talk radio and other grotesqueries.
Does Living with the Sevinsens drag a little at times? Could the pieces have been tied together a bit more tightly? Such criticisms have their place. But with Second City moving up to Novi, it looks as though talented collectives like the Planet Ant Improv Colony are going to be the only game going south of 8 Mile Road. It’s worth noting that as Second City Detroit pulls up stakes to probably strike it rich in the suburbs, the new marquee at Planet Ant Theatre looks about ready to go up in Hamtramck. Who’s laughing now?
Living with the Sevinsens is running at Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck) until March 28, with shows on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15. For reservations call 313-365-4948.Michael Jackman is the copy editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.