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The Return of . . . That Was Zen, This Is Mao; Gunning for Ballroom Dancers

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THE RETURN OF . . . THAT WAS ZEN, THIS IS MAO

Level X

at the Theatre Shoppe

GUNNING FOR BALLROOM DANCERS

Imo and Allen

at Sheffield's

The question is, why has Level X mounted a return engagement of That Was Zen, This Is Mao? I didn't see the original production, but I can easily understand why they took a sabbatical. This show is sorely in need of a writer. The best line is the title itself, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the 17 sketches on the evening's bill. A more appropriate, although admittedly less witty, title might be Five Comedians in Search of an Author.

Like rock groups, comedy troupes make their mark by creating and performing their own material. For better or worse, that's the way it is. One obvious sign that Level X are better performers than writers is that the three improvisational segments of the show are funnier and far fresher than the many scripted portions. That seems odd, doesn't it? I mean, Level X has had a year to write, perform, and rewrite their show, developing and refining it, and yet it falls flat. And their improvs--what they make up as they go along--turn out to be their best work. What's wrong with this picture?

There's nothing astonishingly experimental about the improvs in this show. They're standard. The actors take suggestions from the audience (a place, a thing, a relationship, an emotion, etc) and create scenes. Quite often, such improvs are only as good as the suggestions that the audience offers. And last Friday night the audience wasn't exceptionally brilliant. But Level X is good at this sort of thing. My favorite improv was performed all in rhymed couplets (by Norm Busch and Tony Alcantar). It was a daft, senseless utter destruction of dramatic verse, and I loved it. A similar improv resulted in a blues song, and again, the gag was based on the desperate challenge of extemporizing in rhyme. But, in situations like this, failure is as hilarious as success.

No such luck with scripted sketches, when the audience isn't rooting for the performer. And Level X's skits characteristically were cliched, sophomoric, and just plain dumb. Selections included a cigarette commercial, a news broadcast, a Beatles spoof ("Los Quatro Fabuloso"), and one of those poignant changes of pace about siblings dividing up their inheritance. In brief, what you might expect. In a dozen flat routines, I noted three fleeting but genuinely funny moments. The best of these, I think, came during the news broadcast, when an editorial reporter named Studs (played by Alcantar) blasted the superficial, chatty coanchor news format with a withering critique. In response to the rhetorical "Thank you, Studs," Studs signed off with a "Go to hell!" and slouched offstage in his rumpled suit.

Only two of the scripted sketches worked well. Both were musical numbers: a safe-sex song and dance, absurdly performed in the style of a vaudeville public service announcement, and a Jewish version of "Summertime Blues" ("There ain't no rest for the Orthodox Jew"), sung by two old codgers on a park bench. Again, I think it's symptomatic that the musical routines were funnier than the dramatic sketches. They relied more on the performing talents of the comedians than on the material. And perhaps because of this, the satire was sharper and the concept of the pieces more fully realized.

If or when Level X returns again, I hope they've found a decent writer, abandoned the warhorse agenda popularized so long ago by Laugh-In, or formed their own band.

The second comedy act I've just seen was a Texas couple named Imo and Allen (aka Nancy Bacon and Andre Chimene). And as it happens, the title of their show, Gunning for Ballroom Dancers, has nothing to do with their 17 often poorly written sketches, which were about TV commercials, game shows, a public service announcement promoting auto safety ("airhead pillows"), and--a poignant change of pace--a man who doesn't know his wife's pregnant until she actually has the baby. There seems to be a pattern here.

And there is. Gunning for Ballroom Dancers is cast in the conventional mold. The difference is, the plaster isn't dry yet. Imo and Allen's show hasn't been sitting around for a year. In fact, it was hastily thrown together for opening night and prematurely staged before that date when the audience determines which skits work and which don't. That's unfortunate. Because I sense, although it's too early to be certain, that Imo and Allen have the greater potential.

The potential is immediately suggested by the performers themselves. Imo is a pistol--a tiny, hyper, semiautomatic Texas woman with a nasal accent that will blow you out of the first row. Allen is more of a character actor, grounding the comedy with a variety of distinct, readily grasped characterizations. They balance one another well. I wouldn't mistake either of them for consummate performers, but they can do the job when the role fits. And they perform best those characters that they've imported from Texas: rednecks, saucy children, older folks.

Many of the skits have no future whatsoever, especially the TV commercials. There's one for MSG Whiz, another for Jane Fonda's "No Impact Workout," and yet another for "Trivial Trivial Pursuit," a game about the game itself. These are dead-end concept gags, whose performance is no more amusing than the ideas they're based on. Imo and Allen have better luck with the "Butt-guster"--a nonexercise device, an electric fan, actually, that sucks out or flattens down your butt, as you wish.

The funniest and most promising sketch is a conversation between Imogene and Ed, Texas Gothics. Ed blames Imogene for the loss of his pillow, Sniffer. Ed's had Sniffer ever since he was a baby, and always took great comfort from teething on a corner of the pillow, one finger placed just so in his mouth, and sniffing the mixture of saliva and moldy ticking. Imogene denies throwing Sniffer out. But after 37 years it was just a wad of fabric, a "wad of wad." Still, it's a tragic loss for Ed.

To make a point, the thing that's funny about Sniffer is that it's true to life. It resonates (what a godawful word). It focuses on a point of humanity that we share with Ed, that lug, that slug from west Texas. We get to laugh at ourselves, which is a lot more satisfying than making and remaking the moot point that TV commercials are essentially ridiculous.

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