Sometimes it’s nice just to go down a creepy flight of stairs and into a basement theater, y’know? Sometimes it’s nice to see the exposed heating pipes wrapped with rope behind a bare bones stage because, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot of money in this theater thing. Not at this subterranean level. But hey, that just means the tickets are cheap, and so is the beer. Walking down rickety steps to see live performance is kind of like turning over a rock, and seeing what kind of black box bugs are wriggling and clicking down where the sun don’t shine.
I mean that in a good way. Mostly.
So it was that I found myself guiding my most frequent play-going companion underground to the The Annoyance Theater. Located on Bedford beneath the perpetually-locked Williamsburg Music Center, The Annoyance (DOB: Chicago, 1987) has the distinction of being the first improv company to create full-length shows from its sketches and larks. And that’s what brought me down here, into the guts of Williamsburg’s South Side, checking out a new hour-long show called Actors.
Now, I’m one of those sour-faced, reptilian-brained dickheads who distrusts improv as a general rule. It’s not my bag, no matter how many Judd Apatow movies I see. But I do like honed writing, practiced lines, and solid jokes, whatever their origins. And most of all, I love laughing at actors. I think we all do.
I mean, I love actors, especially good-to-great actors, since they’re at least partially responsible for some of the best shows/movies/works-of-stunning-emotional-art that I’ve ever seen. But once an actor drops that first tiny hint of holier-than-thou, I immediately lump them in with Val Kilmer. And not the cool, homoerotic Iceman Val Kilmer. No. Fat Val Kilmer, the one with all the actor-ly opinions. Luckily this show, written & directed by Julio Torres, Christi Chiello, and Lorelei Ramirez, seems to like laughing at Fat Val Kilmer, too.
We arrived early. Even the $3 PBRs and $4 Sixpoints couldn’t settle my dander as we settled in to watch the tail-end of an improv long-form, with whatever the fuck “Yes, And” silliness was happening there. Finally, Actors started. Chiello and Ramirez came out onstage and delivered the following lines:
“Robin Williams. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Stella Adler. What do they all have in common?”
“They didn’t try hard enough.”
Okay, I thought. I’ll take this ride. And as it turns out, it’s a fairly enjoyable one. Both actresses are able to flesh out their characters as separate (if shallow) entities, though they have no names besides what you might dub the two sides of the Asshole Actor coin: Chiello playing Affectation, Ramirez playing Total Self-Importance.
Chiello has her Madonna-British voice down pat (she LOATHES hydrangeas), but Ramirez is the real delight. She evokes every low-toned Circle In The Square instructor as she makes her way into the audience, singling someone out to close their eyes and dig deep inside. “You’re thinking of your son. You haven’t seen him in seven months. That’s because of the police. Or is it?”
The whole thing goes by pretty quickly, which is fine, given its thin premise. The only problem with laughing at actors is that, at some point, everyone has done it. The trope is too worn to merit an hour-long piece, but Chiello and Ramirez still make the jokes land. At one point a character called Bianca (played by Mr. Torres) appears, voicing a mixture of Hader’s Stefon and James Lipton on blotter acid. He has no reason for being there, but has a couple of funny gonzo reviews of recent movies.
If, like me, you have some preconceived notions on how a scripted theatre show designed by an improv group might look, nothing in Actors will surprise you—even the ringers in the audience who seem to laugh a little too loudly at everything. Still, the beer is cheap and the show is entertaining, and the best bit references the current drama de theatre today (addressed IRL by the likes of Patti Lupone, and Khan from that newish Star Trek movie).
It’s fun, every once in a while, to check out what the (literally) underground performance world is coming up with these days. With a $5 ticket and a $4 brew, you haven’t even broken a 10-spot, and you got a taste of what it is that makes us laugh at Val Kilmer. Hint: it’s not because he’s chubby.