Honor Finnegan vs. the Brain of the Galaxy
By Jack Helbig
Back in the mid- to late 80s, the best improv troupe around was Baron's Barracudas, ImprovOlympic's first house team and Del Close's favorite. ImprovOlympic was not then the huge enterprise it is now, with its own space, dozens of teams, and hundreds of eager, ambitious young comics waiting in the wings. There were barely enough of us to make up three teams.
And at a time when most troupes thought of improv the way Second City did--as just the means to the end of a scripted sketch-comedy show--Baron's Barracudas improvised. And they didn't just perform short little improv games a la ComedySportz--they performed the Harold. These days, of course, almost everyone does some version of long-form improv, but back in the summer of 1986, when I first saw Baron's Barracudas, they were among maybe three dozen improvisers who even knew what a Harold was.
In our little world they were the best: confident, cool, capable of turning anything unexpected into an element of their improvisation. If a chair accidentally collapsed during a scene, then suddenly every scene contained some variation on a collapsing chair. They were dedicated practitioners of Close's dictum that there are no accidents in improv--that everything that happens onstage must be incorporated into the show.
The great irony is that, for all their gifts as improvisers, the Barracudas' most lasting legacy was the scripted 1987 Honor Finnegan vs. the Brain of the Galaxy, written and directed by Close, who built the show around their idiosyncratic talents. Steve Burrows, for example, played the musical saw and did a pretty good Elvis imitation. So Close included a spirit guide who also happened to play the musical saw. At another point, the ghost of Elvis appears.
Then there was Honor Finnegan herself, a plucky young improviser with an amazing set of pipes. Close made her the heroine of his comic science fiction fantasy--a "spunky little chick," as she's called in the play, who was very much an outgrowth of Finnegan's persona as an improviser, a charming spitfire.
For those of us who'd seen the original Barracudas, watching Charna Halpern's revival was disconcerting. "That was fucking weird," Mick Napier said on opening night (a founder of the Annoyance and now a Second City director, he'd had a supporting role in the first production). The cast can't seem to decide whether to pay homage to the earlier staging or make the show their own--so they do neither. And though they're clearly trying as hard as they can to make Honor Finnegan fly, there are times when they don't seem to fully understand how to mine the comedy in their roles.
The original Barracudas were sharp and confident enough to get laughs with the old Pirandellian trick of momentarily breaking the stage reality to comment on the action; then they'd resume as if nothing had happened. These gags remain in the show, but no one here manages to pull them off: the performers don't quite click out of and back into the stage reality quickly enough. Even Honor Finnegan herself, reprising her lead role, doesn't always seem certain how to re-create the feisty girl she played 13 years ago.
Part of the problem is the direction. Charna Halpern is many things: a gifted producer, a brilliant promoter, a giving caretaker who literally kept the wildly self-destructive Close alive. But she's a beginner when it comes to directing plays. Again and again she's faithful to the letter but not to the spirit of Close's dark comic style. Jokes that in Close's hands would have seemed darkly funny because they were part of his cynical worldview, such as a reference to the Challenger explosion, come off as merely mean-spirited. Halpern also cannot reproduce Close's knack for spinning comedy out of a combination of high and low references. The show contains a speech on the history of Godzilla that must have been an absolutely killing send-up of both academia and the cultish fans of sci-fi as Close both indulged and mocked his own interests. But here it seems only an occasionally interesting, occasionally bland and irrelevant bit of narration.
The show is not without redeeming features. The story that Close and the Barracudas wove about Finnegan's journey to the edge of the solar system to battle the "brain of the universe" remains delightfully warped. Halpern has reproduced pretty well Close's fascination with altered states, reflected here in a series of increasingly odd dream sequences. And the tunes, by Charles Silliman and Howard Johnson, are delightful, particularly Finnegan's love song to Godzilla.
But in the end it's hard not to wonder whether Close would have bothered to revive Honor Finnegan, packed as it is with jokes about Reagan and the 80s that are now more puzzling than funny. It would have been much more in his spirit to create something new using the skills of this decade's Baron's Barracudas. These days there are dozens of troupes than can do what they did--and more.