AHA: THE BOOK CLUB, Zygomatic Arch Theater Company, at Bailiwick Repertory. Under the direction of brilliant monsters like Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, the first improvisers had to be a quick, well-educated bunch. Which is why so many of the theater games perfected at the time assume that players have a vast pool of knowledge. But these days improv is a lazy man's game, dominated by people who don't read, don't think, don't buy newspapers, and watch way too much TV. Even purportedly bookish groups like the Zygomatic Arch can't manage witty, intelligent improvisations. It doesn't help that they based their show on the assumption that audiences are clamoring for an evening of all the usual improv games performed one after the other.
But what doomed Aha: The Book Club the night I saw it was that the audience was way smarter than the cast. Prompted to suggest a time in history, one audience member shouted, "the Punic Wars!" and for the next five minutes one clueless improviser proved again and again he had no idea what they were, when they took place, or even, as he muttered at one point, where "Punia" was.
OK, so the Punic Wars are kind of obscure. Still, in improv's golden age there would have been at least one person onstage who at least knew that during the second Punic war Hannibal attempted to invade Rome by crossing the Alps with a herd of armored elephants. The troupe fared no better with suggestions chosen at random from one of the books piled, like an offering to the improv gods, in front of the stage. --Jack Helbig