Carl %amp; Shelly, Best Friends Forever
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
August 8, 2008
What's the difference between sketch comedy and a play? The question popped into my head while watching the FringeNYC two-person show, Carl & Shelly, Best Friends Forever. The best sketch comedy boasts knowable, lovable characters who want something and who have to overcome obstacles and antagonists to get what they want. But it's far more important that the sketches are funny than that they have a fully developed trajectory. After all, there's a reason why it's called "sketch" comedy. By contrast, a play, simply put, has to have a story. On paper, the difference feels like Theater 101 material, but it's certainly pertinent when approaching the countless comedies in the Fringe.
Carl and Shelly is not really a play, but extended sketch comedy with a skeletal plot. The bosom buddies of the title are two nerdy, overgrown children. They share the same interests—such as watching cheesy 1980s television shows and creating art with cotton balls, crackers, and paste—and they host their own cable access show, "Poetry Craft Corner." But their friendship becomes strained when Carl develops an overzealous crush on a letter-writing (lesbian) fan, and when a goofy gallery owner wants to exhibit Shelly's artwork. But the story's construction does not really hinge on the stakes of their friendship—instead, it functions as an opportunity for writer/performers Allen Warnock and Andrea Alton to play a variety of colorful characters.
Certainly both Warnock and Alton have impressive versatility and charisma. Warnock's finest creation is the pretentious art gallery owner, donning a silvery Andy Warhol wig and exclaiming his love for Shelly's art in nasally spurts. (Imagine a more exuberant version of South Park's Mr. Garrison.) Likewise, Alton does best with her public-school-security-guard-slash-lesbian who just wants a little help from Carl with her poetry. When she glares at an imaginary student in the audience and bellows, "Hey Bobby, don't use condoms as sling shots—that's not what we gave them to you for!", it's chuckle-worthy because it's so apt.
But most everything in Carl & Shelly is exaggerated to the max. After all, Shelly's glue-and-marker art looks as if it were made by a distracted kindergartener, and the "Poetry Craft Corner" show is followed by a show that sells illegal prescription pills. In order for this kind of embellished material to be really great, it's got to have a grain of truth in it. Saturday Night Live's "Wayne's World" sketch became beloved because once upon a time in high school, we all knew endearing, rock 'n' roll nerds like them. But the generally silly Carl and Shelly come from an alternate universe. Warnock and Alton endow them with plenty of heart, but I wish I understood why they existed, as I understand the gallery owner and lesbian guard.
That Warnock and Alton have such obvious talent is an indicator that when doing straight sketch comedy (such as in the sketch group they founded, Freedumb), they are undoubtedly dynamite. With luck, their next appearance at FringeNYC will capitalize on those skills with a more structured play.