Theater review: The Dumb Show at American Stage is smart improv

They’re two very different types. Hawk is the more intellectual and nerdy-looking (you may remember him from Circumference of a Squirrel at The [email protected] and freeFall Theatre), while Wayne has a rubber mask of a face suggesting wild mutability. At the start of their show, they announce that what they offer is “long-form improvisation”; instead of taking suggestions from the audience all through the night, they’ll take one suggestion only — and let that lead to one scene after the next in a kind of theatrical stream-of-consciousness.

Of course, every performance will be different, but on the night I attended they asked the audience for a dumb idea – and someone suggested Britney Spears. So Wayne became Britney, Hawk was K-Fed, and there were some hilarious moments involving the baby that Spears repeatedly mishandled (“I thought it was a Chihuahua!”). This turned into a segment about two country singers, one of whom – Hawk – announced that he was suffering from “ennui.” Wayne (“Delbert”) tried to turn this into a country song, but at the end the two singers admitted they were unemployed – which segued right into a sketch about two men filing for unemployment. The best parts of that segment concerned a nearly infinite number of pamphlets explaining everything from how to wait in line to “how to talk like pseudo-German guys.” This led to the sketch about the two U.S. Airway pilots, bored with flying and amusing each other with Facebook and Asian porn while their plane, supposed to land in Minneapolis, makes its way to Cuba.

Somehow this turned into a sketch about two cosmetic surgeons performing liposuction on an immensely fat man, and suctioning up his liver by mistake. (Someone’s cellphone went off in the audience during this bit, and the actors deftly turned it into more medical comedy.) Then came one of the best parts of the evening: Wayne as a mean father playing racquetball with his son, and accompanying each serve with shouts of “I never loved your mother,” “You were never breastfed” and “We used to buy your toys at garage sales.”

This was followed by Hawk and Wayne as man and wife, he reading a newspaper and she crocheting – only every few moments they began moaning and screeching like monsters in a bad horror film. When Hawk finally collapsed, Wayne danced around him chanting like a screwball Native American.

I’ve seen improv troupes from Chicago’s Second City to a Dick Schaal-inspired team in downtown St. Petersburg, and the two actors in The Dumb Show seem to me about as professional as you could want. Also pleasing, if not quite as inventive, was the opening act — “Arthur, Felton and Edwards” — a troupe that offered theater games in which the audience figured importantly. First the trio answered audience questions in one-word-per-actor long, twisted sentences; then they performed a silly sketch in one minute, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds and then five; and finally they tried to indirectly prompt one of their number to admit that, with his accomplice Bugs Bunny and while wearing a Speedo, he ate a bowl of Fruit Loops.

The (surprisingly) young audience members in the American Stage lobby for this After Hours performance were loudly appreciative of both the opening act and the headliners, and I basically agreed with them. The Dumb Show and “Arthur, Felton and Edwards” made an evening of satisfying theater.

The show is only offered on the first Sunday of each month, so you’ll have to wait till December to see the next one. But it’s worth the wait. As to where Hawk and Wayne will take their audience in December...Well, that’s anyone’s guess. And, this being improv, that’s just right.

Good improv requires a lot more than acting talent. It requires intelligence, a wide-ranging imagination, split-second decision-making and an unfailing instinct for what’s comic in the human condition. Where Gavin Hawk and Ricky Wayne of The Dumb Show (photo, L-R) are concerned, it also means the willingness to appear utterly ridiculous in front of a crowdful of strangers. Whether impersonating Britney Spears trying to make up with Kevin Federline, a sadistic father and his horrified son playing racquetball, or two U.S. Airway pilots overshooting their destination by several hundred miles, Hawk and Wayne repeatedly aim for the dangerous heights – or is it depths? – of vulnerability, absurdity, insanity and just plain silliness. They’re not always successful, but at their best they find more humor in their unscripted hijinks than most actors ever find in the most celebrated of comic texts. If you love to laugh, you ought to give them a look.

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