“One good turn deserves another,” purrs a greasy lounge lizard as he ogles his prey. “You turn away and I turn you on.” A dreadful cliché, perhaps, but a welcome one early in the second half of The Ball and Chain Gang, the 10th annual sketch comedy review by the Planet Ant Improv Colony. When it comes to laughs about dating and mating in America, clichés are a big third wheel able to carry you over some very uneven terrain.
And our friends at Planet Ant know how to make a mountain out of an anthill. The premise for the show is as feeble as it is necessary. Generations X and Y like to think they have irony beat at its own game; here’s proof to the contrary. Three young couples gather to celebrate the imminent departure of Clyde (Dave Davies) and Katrina (Elana Elyce) for New Jersey, where she will be the state’s poet laureate. Suitably lubricated with booze and nostalgia, they take us for a bumpy ride down memory lane, revisiting their respective lives before and after that most prized of events, marriage.
Dex (Pj Jacokes) and Bridget (Mollie Platt) are hipsters who swore never to let kiddies spoil their pose. Courtney (Jen Nischan) must have seen something she liked in Chas (Brett Guennel) at the frat parties, but he’s clearly testing her patience for a payoff.
But while the writing is often awful, the performances are great. Every single actor has a particular charisma that keeps you watching. When the girls remember a naughty night out at a cheesy Mexican restaurant run by the Lopez brothers (Guennel and Davies), Jacokes stars as Alejandro, an oily shagaholic lip-synching his way into the panties of pretty ladies. The skit begins to fight for altitude, as many of the skits do, but when it’s aloft, the laughs come easily.
Director Margaret Edwartowski mentions in the program notes that she wanted to portray the reality of “our own lives.” Speak for yourself, ma’am. Pity is the emotion that comes to mind if you assume that the six characters on stage represent an entire generation at work on life. With all their whining, wheedling and relentless parroting of various pop-culture shticks, talk about living on video. Oh, the pain!
I found myself fixated on Nischan’s Courtney. She comes on like a young Joan Rivers, all brittle sociability and nouveau-riche propriety. Yet just below the thin topsoil you sense a vast network of neurosis and narcissism. At any moment, even when she’s laughing, she seems ready for a breakdown. Her man can’t be helping her psychic weather. Guennel delivers Chas as an affable lummox, 30 pounds and 10 years removed from his heyday of tapping the keg. Now he’s a fast-talking shirker, beholden to get-rich schemes and inventions. Imagine Jim Belushi on speed.
In the final sketch, Courtney and Katrina, well-drunk by now, exchange barbs about white girls trying to sound black. Nischan is hilarious here, because we sense that Courtney knows she sounds ridiculous, but the culture doesn’t give her anything better to work with. In fact, it demands the pantomime of sounding and acting “cold.” Whoa to the person who isn’t fronting; you’ll be eaten alive by other savages of your generation, trapped in lascivious childishness.
Indeed, after 90 minutes, you leave the theater a bit sad. How can people really connect when their whole lives are built on pop songs and the postures of celebrities? If this is living in the “real world,” on the whole I’d rather stay in bed with a book. Alone.
The Ball and Chain Gang by the Planet Ant Improv Colony is at Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff, Hamtramck) through March 30 — Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 313-365-4948 for reservations.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org