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Theater of Funny; Dealer's Choice

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THEATER OF FUNNY

Cardiff Giant

at Igloo

DEALER'S CHOICE

at the Roxy

A quick way to teach comics how to land on their feet is the improv game called "Switch"; any scene in motion must change completely whenever someone comes onstage. If "Switch" clicks, it's not because you ended a bit well but because you launched a new one without a pause. That's loosely the arrangement (and the problem) behind the sketches that make up "Very Funny," which is the nearly fraudulently titled first half of Cardiff Giant's Theater of Funny, an alleged comedy revue written by director Hiram Bigelow (aka Steve Schroer) and the cast, several of whom appeared last summer in this troupe's first offering, the sporadically amusing The Rack.

Unfortunately, this rapid "Switch"-like turnover means no comic bit is permitted a punch line, just a segue into the next inconclusive vignette. Theater of Funny ends up very un.

Only one comic premise in "Very Funny" is given a chance to prove its potential -- and it shouldn't. Tom Dorfmeister plays Ned, a very weird, desperate, and humorless "concept" comic, whose assistant Dolly (Joan Polner) is employed to tell the audience how to react to his "jokes" (guffaws, groans, loud applause). She hates his clunkers as much as we do and deviously undermines the material -- but not half as much as it does itself.

Other hit-and-run duds include a boy who discovers that his parents used the soft spot on his baby head as a piggy bank -- and want their money back; a strangely stupid mime episode of animals fleeing a forest fire; two masochists using a disagreement about decorating as an excuse to pummel each other; and a long ghost story, effectively told by Phil Lortie, that sets up everything and delivers zilch. Sadly enough, there's a lot of flagrant talent wasted here, particularly John Hildreth's gifted rubber face. But it all ends up as a ton of grist looking for a mill. Or a stupid game of "Switch."

The one surefire howler involves Mark Ray Hollmann as a crazy and meddlesome waiter who convinces himself that a female diner (Polner) is perversely lying about the boyfriend who's joined her for dinner. Hollmann's mutating mania to expose the fraud and Polner's unflappable explanations of where the boyfriend's disappeared to combine into combustible comedy. But even this, the only sketch that comes to life, dies before its time, bumped off, as usual, by the next one.

The second half, "Someone's Got It Worse," a lackluster musical by Hollmann and Bigelow, brings back Mr. Butt, an "insult comic" character first exposed in The Rack and after this tedium terminates, here very much overexposed. A human posterior played by Hollmann's (clothed) rear end with snarling gusto, Butt is a full-time grinch who'd make Oscar blush. In his job as a doorman, this misanthropic Pee-wee Herman gets to indulge in his favorite brand of massive self-pity and regularly humiliate the tenants (not very inventively, since "Bug off!" is his favorite witticism). The flimsy story has Butt employed by a sexpot (Polner) to give the heave-ho to her many suitors (all but one played by Lortie with rapid-fire versatility). Of course it's a job Butt can really throw himself into, but afterwards he ends up as forlorn as before. So do we; a little of Mr. Butt goes a long, long way. Neither able to end their sketches successfully nor to build the final one to any comic payoff, Theater of Funny should turn in its name.

Fred Hunter's Dealer's Choice is about four guys who like to play cards every Friday night. Alex is gay and bitchy, delighting in skewering hotheaded Cray, a straight and very narrow barfly. Len, the owner of a cost-cutting consulting business, is trying to calm them by preaching team spirit and pulling together. During a temporary truce the Men chug down beers while waiting for the fourth player to arrive.

But more than cards brings them together. Could it be, oh I don't know, maybe Satan? You bet your immortal soul, these conventionally clad poker players turn out to be devils whose Friday night get-togethers not only serve as strategy sessions for their wicked work to come -- but at midnight their infernal boss expects them to offer up (or is it down?) a human sacrifice, usually the fourth card player.

Each far-too-human devil has his own demonic specialty. Smooth-speaking Len, who sees himself as "the oil that rises to the top," likes to "convince little people that it's all right to do the wrong thing for the right reason." (Recently he so deluded a couple into believing in the power of prayer that they refused their sick daughter emergency medical help that would have saved her life.) Knowing hope can be a killer, Alex is a merry imp who torments his victims into believing that they're impotent, then rewards the poor slobs with very occasional orgasms -- so they'll keep on trying for another. (Alex would make a great Skinnerian psychologist.) Cray, the renegade in the group, uses sex to steal souls (he brags about inventing herpes); his obsession is to create impossible passions that quickly burn out their occupant. Apparently that's not exactly playing by the rules. As Len puts it, "we string them along until they die," weighing the suckers down with secret guilt and rage that in effect eat their hearts out. But that's not enough for Cray; no, as indignant Len puts it, he "guts them" far too soon. (Well, some people take their work just a tad too seriously.)

Finally, Skeech, the fourth card player, arrives, a smiling bully whose forte is to force folks to mutilate themselves (he got his name from the sound they make as they do it). Though curious about the heavy turnover of players, Skeech desperately wants a "base" with these buddies.

Meanwhile midnight has been drawing near, and one of them has got to go. (Can devils really die?) That's when Alex proposes they play his own peculiar version of "Hearts." The Twilight Zone-like surprise ending provides Dealer's Choice with what is, unfortunately, the only real action in the 45 (none too few) minutes.

This one-joke one-act carries a plethora of devil-may-care exposition that often ends up chasing its forked tail. But Hunter -- whose Renfield, recently produced at the Immediate Theatre Studio, betrayed a similar delight in the macabre -- has a good ear for glib macho braggadocio. Warmly directed by Marian Hank, the actors' work is nicely detailed and contrasted, Tim Glisson's "Church Lady" prissiness a good foil for Josh Mandel's couthless sadist Cray. Richard Shavzin plays the "organization demon" Len with button-down blandness, and Sherman Shoemaker is suitably predatory as the glad-handed career devil Skeech.

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