Best of Improv Asylum Vists Laugh Boston for a Big Night Out (4 stars)
Improv Asylum is Boston's hot spot for comedy. There's always something going on, and their website is much easier to navigate than Improv Boston, which is actually in Cambridge. Both groups hold group shows and do corporate training, teach improv classes, and more. Improv Asylum has a resident cast, but only three are mentioned briefly on the website.
Usually to find Improv Asylum you'll go to Boston's North End, but for this show I visited Laugh Boston, an upscale club in the Westin Hotel in the Seaport District. It's a large venue, where everyone gets a seat and table, and there's table service where you can order a real meal (also unlike Improv Boston), a snack, or just drinks. The scene is classy, with lots of intelligent-looking couples and singles not there to get drunk but to enjoy a fun night out. There's no dress code, but guests were dressed up. I was the only sloppy Joe to come in a t-shirt. Whoops!
Laugh Boston is the real deal. They regularly bring in nationally known standups, like Robert Kelly, featured on HBO's Tourgasm with Dane Cook, and Richard Lewis, one of Comedy Central's Top 50 Comedians of All Time. They also have regular themed comedy nights with local performers, and there every Saturday they host Best of Improv Asylum, a visiting show by, you guessed it, Improv Asylum.
The show is laugh out loud funny and will keep you entertained with its variety. In this "best of" show, sometimes they perform sketches that are old audience favorites, and other times they show off their improvisational skills with different games and scenarios that add some structure and guide the performance. The cast wears microphones and can be clearly heard.
I loved that they added some Boston hometown humor to some of the sketches. We laughed and laughed when they performed a jazzed up Dunkin Donuts commercial like it's the ultimate American icon, Boston's own Declaration of Independence. They visited Ikea with its weird Swedish furniture names for a soap opera drama. I loved the song about rap. It was a long road to the dolphins sketch.
Improv included bringing an audience member up on stage, asking about his life and job, and then dramatizing it in a heightened satire. Another time they put one member in the hot seat and sort of attacked him verbally with rapid fire twenty-second improv scenes, always switching and changing.
One time a cast member brought out a bell and explained that each time she dinged it, whomever had just spoken would have to say something else instead. But this was the only improv game that they actually explained. At other times, I wasn't sure whether I was watching a sketch or an improv routine. Airport security agents mess around with flyers at an airport. (Sketch?) A scary dad asked tough questions to his daughters new boyfriend (Improv?)
This confusion troubled me because one of the great things about improv is that sometimes, it doesn't even matter if it's good. You just have fun rooting for the cast. When they crack up or make a flub, sometimes that's just as hilarious. So I need to know that it's improv (or just a sketch) to know what mode I am in. (Was what they just said simply scripted or a comic genius thunderbolt they came up with on the spot?)
Additionally, the format did not allow the audience to bond with the cast, making it harder to get into a mode of rooting for them. They didn't introduce themselves by name (seems so unlikely I wonder whether I missed it?) and rarely spoke to the audience, except to get improv cues, so the connection wasn't strong there. They didn't come down into the audience, which would have ameliorated the distance created by the raised stage. Also, they wore black formal attire, which I suppose was an attempt to class it up for The Westin's Laugh Boston, but dressing down to help the audience relax might have led to more laughter. Perhaps that's why so many comedians dress down while performing. Also, having five white people in similar black suits, playing dozens of roles, made it hard sometimes to remember who was who. The show comes with live accompaniment on a keyboard.
They say that timing is everything in comedy, and the group had excellent timing during their scenes. However to me the scene transitions were too abrupt. Most scenes would end with a big laugh line, of course, but instead of letting the audience's reaction percolate, they snapped the lights off just as the laugh line was delivered and the cast would immediately leave the stage. Simultaneous to this, very loud music would come up covering the audience's reaction, so that we could not hear each other laugh in that "everybody's laughing so I'll laugh too" group psychology that makes live events so much fun. Sometimes the music was so loud that I could not have shared a remark with a friend between scenes. Then the cast would come out for the next scene without preamble, just going into it immediately.
I suppose the fast pace is supposed to add great energy, but like the new Star Trek film, whose action shots are so fast that they're hard to follow, I would have preferred a natural pacing.
Those concerns aside, the cast is talented and work well together as a group. The larger guy lent great physical comedy and quirks. (Tried to get his name.) Often he would not have to say a word to make us laugh. Each member of the cast had big moments and they did not step on each other's lines or ideas. I was certainly left wanting to visit Improv Boston's main stage and see more!
I'm glad to give Best of Improv Boston 4 stars out of 5.