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Groundlings: Wish You Were Here

Instead, as in much of the comedy world today, the focus is on everyday people trying to make their way through a bewildering world, frustrated at every turn by Chinese restaurant menus, 3-D art, serenading Christians, hyped-up coffee drinkers and one-night stands who talk in their sleep. While the laughs are there, they are less pointed, and focused on a much more limited spectrum than in the past.

Instead, as in much of the comedy world today, the focus is on everyday people trying to make their way through a bewildering world, frustrated at every turn by Chinese restaurant menus, 3-D art, serenading Christians, hyped-up coffee drinkers and one-night stands who talk in their sleep. While the laughs are there, they are less pointed, and focused on a much more limited spectrum than in the past.

In “Magic Eye,” Jim Wise has to endure the slings and arrows of his birthday guests when he can’t manage to make out the 3-D pattern amid the computer dots. “Pool Party” sees Maggie Baird and Karen Maruyama humiliated by the guys when they arrive at a pool party without bathing suits. And in “Walk-in Closet,” David Jahn is embarrassed by Mary Jo Smith, who tells him that all his friends and relatives think he’s gay.

Among the best pieces are Maruyama’s turn as an unintelligible waitress in a Chinese restaurant, as well as her duet with Steve Kehela as two lovers during a one-night stand.

Wise is excellent as the tortured birthday boy and as the hapless hero of a “Miss Saigon” takeoff. In addition, he performs his trademark improvisational love song to an audience member with great gusto.

Smith, Jahn and Kehela bring offbeat energy and focus to their sketches and to the improv pieces.

The weakness here is in the writing. While the setups are good and the dialogue is polished, the Groundlings seem to have lost their direction.

In a year when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in two generations, when domestic terrorism surfaced in Oklahoma City, when the NATO alliance is crumbling over Bosnia and when America is engaged in a heated debate concerning the “Contract With America,” why is an esteemed comedy troupe like this doing audition pieces for “Saturday Night Live”?

Let’s hope the Groundlings, who have so much talent and humor to offer, can regain their proud, edgy, satirical tradition.

Groundlings: Wish You Were Here

(Groundling Theatre, West Hollywood; 99 seats; $ 17.50 top)

Production: Groundling Theatre presents an evening of sketches and improvisation in two acts by Maggie Baird, Jennifer Coolidge, John Crane, Will Ferrell, David Jahn, Chris Kattan, Steve Kehela, Karen Maruyama, Mary Jo Smith, Chase Winton and Jim Wise; director, Melanie Graham; musical director, Willie Etra. #Opened June 9, 1995; reviewed July 1. Runs through Sept. 2. Running time: 90 min. #Cast: Maggie Baird, John Crane, Will Ferrell, David Jahn, Chris Kattan, Steve Kehela, Karen Maruyama, Cheri Oteri, Mary Jo Smith, Jim Wise. This talented comedy troupe delivers their usual polished mix of improv and sketches, but without the political, satirical edge of past shows. Perhaps it is a sign of our troubled, apathetic times, but not a single sketch in the Groundlings' new show touched on even vaguely political topics. Even televangelists and Hollywood icons are exempt from the company's comedy onslaught.

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