nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 23, 2006
Spontaneous comedy is as engaging a theatre experience as there is. Even when things temporary run out of steam, all of the energy in the room is focused on how the performers are going to get out of whatever goofy corner they've worked themselves into. When it's cooking, and the jokes and rhythms are steadily escalating, it can be euphoric.
Project: Projekt, the comedy team of Joe Schiappa and Nathan Phillips, manages the euphoria more often than most. Their show, Monday nights at the People's Improv Theater, is a 45-minute set of completely improvised sketch comedy that keeps the audience laughing and the guys on their toes. Indeed, one of the things that I've observed each time I've seen these guys work is that their energy seems to come from challenging each other—sometimes one will almost be defying the other to keep up with this or to top that. And so there's palpable joy when they manage to crack each other up. Well, almost: they're pros—all we get to see from the audience is the merest hint of a smile of delight on the face of one member of the duo, subtly acknowledging whatever the other has just thrown at him.
This is pure improv: no games, no skits, no audience suggestions. Schiappa and Phillips begin with a short, pre-rehearsed anecdote (at the night reviewed, it was about homeless people selling those newspapers on the street). And then they riff. Characters and catch-phrases are invented and then return in new contexts; I particularly loved how Phillips's initial persona of the evening, a disabled, raspy-voiced, moderately annoying homeless fellow named Reggie, found himself in scenes later on in the show (one depicting the auto accident that had made him disabled in the first place).
Now it occurs to me that what I've told you so far doesn't seem particularly funny, so let me mention now that in fact Schiappa and Phillips are VERY funny. Most of their stuff lands, and the stuff that doesn't isn't dumb, just maybe too involved. They're smart and they avoid being coarse or vulgar; cheap laughs don't seem to interest them.
At the show reviewed, they covered a lot of ground: not just homeless guys but also fireman (who may or may not be pyromaniacs), which led them to a woman from the San Diego Zoo who was presenting a specially-trained porpoise to the New York Fire Department, which led them eventually to a nurse who, never having seen the ocean, was sent to the ocean by her doctor, which led them to a pirate ship full of DVDs (what else is pirated nowadays?). And the porpoise came back; and Reggie the homeless guy came back; and somehow it all felt satisfying wrapped up by the time the curtain (metaphorically) fell; and best of all the curtain came before (as opposed to after) we were tired of the inspired, often surreal shenanigans.
I will conclude by noting that Schiappa and Phillips are obviously very skilled actors as well as comic improvisors. Project: Projekt is great fun and, I suspect, as jolly a workout for them as it is for us.