Something special and downright hilarious is happening this month at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – whose famous alumni include Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Horatio Sanz, and many more – are taking over the stage through July 31, bringing the group’s special brand of long form improvisation. Each night four incredibly talented performers make it up as they go along, no pre-planning or rehearsal, so each show is entirely unique.
Brandon Scott Jones and Connor Ratliff
If your idea of improv is Whose Line is it Anyway?, what UCB does is very different. Rather than short skits, long form improv, pioneered by Del Close in Chicago in the 1980s, has the performers create an entire show. Not only is length a challenge – UCB’s production at Woolly Mammoth runs more than one hour and 30 minutes – but keeping the characters and scenes connected and the laughs coming places huge demands on these comedians. Fortunately, the four now appearing in We Know How You Die!, are up to the challenge.
Improv is a crowd pleaser because the audience has a chance to participate in the fun. The Saturday evening we attended, dozens of hands went up when UCB member – the absolutely amazing Shannon O’Neill – asked, “Who wants to know how they die?” Among those who volunteered, O’Neill asked another question, “Tell us something unique about yourself.” One woman said she had a piece of metal in her pinky finger, the result of an accident. A college student admitted that she met her nursery school teacher at a party and the woman offered to roll her a joint. Still another woman (where were the men that night?!) talked about treating her husband as a “boy toy.”
After conferring with her colleagues, O’Neill invited the woman with the metal in her finger to join them on the stage. The young woman, who explained that she ran a service helping people present themselves better on dating sites, was a virtual treasure trove of information that the performers used well in the improv that followed.
Molly Thomas and Connor Ratlif
Besides O’Neill, Connor Ratliff, Brandon Scott Jones, and Molly Thomas, helped to tell the young woman’s story. The four obviously are comfortable working together, and moved in and out of scenes with nary a pause in the action or laughs. Improv not only tests the actors with their mental and verbal skills, but requires a great deal of physical movement. Thomas was brilliant, at one point impersonating the actual dating app being shaken up by O’Neill’s character. And Jones transformed himself into the woman’s dog, named Scruffy. Ratliff stood out for his ability to morph seamlessly from one character into another, many times keeping a straight face despite the absurdity of the situation.
My guess is that true fans will be attending this show more than once while UCB is in residence. Each night is another adventure and another opportunity to laugh out loud. Don’t miss the fun.
Photos courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Top photo: Shannon O’Neill, Brandon Scott Jones, Connor Ratliff, and Molly Thomas
We Know How You Die!
United Citizens Brigade
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D Street NW
It’s not as bad as some (mostly male) critics have predicted. But it’s not as good as it might have been. By including scenes, themes, the logo, settings, even spirits from the original Ghostbusters, the new Ghostbusters misses an opportunity to present something fresh and innovative and even – dare we say – go on to become a cult hit on its own merits. While the all female cast has been touted, what does it say that perhaps the best performance in the film is by a guy? Chris Hemsworth seems to be having the time of his life playing the ditsy receptionist, Kevin, hired not for his skills but for his hunky eye candy appeal.
That’s not to say that this film isn’t fun and enjoyable. (Particularly this summer when so many hyped sequels have fallen flat.) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones have chemistry and superb comic timing. Yet these talented actresses are hamstrung by a script that often falls flat and doesn’t allow them to truly bring their characters alive. McKinnon, who never lets what’s on the page hold her back, manages to stand out as the quirky, eccentric scientist Jillian Holtzmann. McCarthy and Wiig are fine, but at times seem to be walking through their parts. As for Jones, casting her as a blue-collar worker, is probably not what Jada Pinkett Smith had in mind when she was arguing for more high profile roles for black actors. Jones is terrific as a bad ass MTA worker, but why couldn’t she have been a bad ass scientist?
McCarthy and Wiig play Abby Yates and Erin Gilbert, former colleagues who once wrote a book on the paranormal. Now that Gilbert is up for tenure at Columbia University, she goes to Yates’ lab, asking her to stop selling the book on Amazon, fearing it will damage her reputation as a serious scientist. When Yates and Holtzmann receive a call to investigate the paranormal activity at a Manhattan mansion, Gilbert can’t resist going along. After the ghost makes an appearance, Gilbert’s fate is sealed. The event makes it onto the internet, she’s fired from Columbia and agrees to join Yates and Holtzmann’s lab. Jones’ character, Patty Tolan, comes on board after witnessing ghostly activity on the subway tracks.
What the film lacks is a compelling plot and a real villain. The bad guy here is Rowan North (Neil Casey), a hotel worker who is somehow collecting bad spirits to create chaos with a big attack. (How and why he’s doing this is never fully explained.) Rowan comes off as a sad sack who is disgruntled but never appears very threatening. He does manage, however, to unleash a firestorm which manifests itself on the screen with an unending barrage of ghosts. There’s a lot of activity, but never a center for the attack. It just appears as computer imaging run amok. Once Rowan disappears, there’s no real villain to take his place. (One longs for the more creative plot in the original which at least made it clear who and what Bill Murray and company were fighting.)
Speaking of Murray, he makes the obligatory cameo as a professor out to discredit this new all-woman team. Dan Ackroyd turns up as a cab driver who refuses to take Wiig’s Gilbert to Chinatown and gets to deliver the expected line: “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” Ernie Hudson appears as Tolan’s uncle whose hearse the team has been using. The fourth member of the original crew, Harold Ramis, died last year. (Stay for the credits to catch Sigourney Weaver.)
While all these star turns are fun to watch (Annie Potts, the original receptionist, is seen here as a hotel clerk), they keep reminding us that this Ghostbusters is not that Ghostbusters. Director Paul Feig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Katie Dippold, seems to be trying too hard to appease those critics who trashed this reboot based solely on the all-female cast. Feig worked with McCarthy and Wiig on Bridesmaids while Dippold delivered a terrific script for The Heat’s female pair of McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. Both films were critical and box office winners. They missed an opportunity to create another winner here.
Ghostbusters opens nationwide July 15, 2016.
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures.