The Cunin Family Chronicles
By: improvised by cast
At: WNEP Theater, 3209 N. Halsted
Phone: ( 773 ) 755-1693; $12
Runs through: Feb. 23
by Jonathan Abarbanel
The Cunin Family Chronicles is long-form improvisation in which the cast creates not a revue but a complete play, with plot and continuing characters. It's very difficult to do well or consistently. The great improv guru Del Close observed that improvisation inherently is comedic, so the challenge is not providing funny lines and bits, but structure and shape. To that end, WNEP utilizes a basic scenario of six scenes, each of which takes place on Thanksgiving Days five years apart, and the first of whichset in 1970shows how the future Mr. and Mrs. Cunin meet. The couple are assigned character traits, based on audience suggestions.
Now, if you're looking for polished performances and slick production or even for intelligence ( vs. cleverness ) , you'd better stay away from this show and most pure improv. There's no fancy setjust a basic studio black boxand no fancy acting, but you're almost guaranteed some laughs, the price is right, and so is the one-hour length. You'll be out in plenty of time to hit Halsted. Since the show is different each night, you might see something wonderful or something lame.
The performance I saw was not so good, notwithstanding its quota of amusing bits and one-liners. The company dug itself several deep holes, lead by actor Tom Herman who played Stanely Cunin on opening night. Assigned abrasive character traits, he took them inflexibly to heart going for shock-value jokes, and committing the cardinal sin of improvisation, that of ignoring the realities of situation established by other actors. He persistently pursued his own beats and devices, no matter what others did or said.
The troupe dug another hole when a tall, heavy-set actor took the role of the Cunin's bouncing baby: they verbally established the baby as grotesquely large instead of letting the actor play a normal child. By the end, this character was in a dead-end scene parallel to, but detached from, the main story. Not really the actor's fault, as he quite properly played the reality established for him by others.
Narrator Emily Skylo did what she could to end each scene at an appropriate moment and introduce the next one, but it was a struggle. Alone among the actors, Patrick Brennan taking several small roles refused to go for quick jokes, attempted to build characters and listened well to others.
It's a shame to analyze light-hearted improv so seriously, but comedy is serious business. Improv always is funny, but that doesn't make it good. Director Cholley Kuhaneck needs to keep drilling the troupes. The longer they work together, the better their tumult will be.