When the Groundlings are good, they are very good. When they are bad, they look kind of embarrassed and quickly move on. The 18 short scenes of their latest effort, “The Ride,” offer little social satire or commentary (unlike their spiritual ancestors Second City and the Committee), focusing instead on the eccentric and the carnal natures of men and women. Most of the work is light on substance or thematic development, relying on the talents of the actors to move things along.
At the high end of the talent chart is Phil LaMarr, whose participation in three scenes are the main highlights of the evening. “Pro Choice” features LaMarr and David Jahn as two hilariously self-satisfied gay men who revel in the abuse society inflicts upon them. In probably the most socially significant outing of the evening, LaMarr offers an exquisite Jekyll & Hyde metamorphosis from mannerly, articulate black man to a raging, foul-mouthed militant when he is given bad service by supermarket employees (Jahn, Bryan Adams and Amy Von Freymann). In the first act closer, “G-Thang,” LaMarr brings down the house as a super-charged, in-your-face gay rap artist.
With director Karen Maruyama fielding suggestions from the audience, the four totally improvised scenes descend quickly from brilliant to near embarrassing. LaMarr and Adams participate in the most successful outing, riffing along as two technicians at a “Sperm Bank.” The two are joined by Jahn in the inventive and energetic second act closing improvised musical, “Claw,” which owes most of its inspiration from the Broadway stage show “Rent.”
Not nearly as successful are Von Freymann and Michael McDonald as “Pizza Parlor” workers who must deal with the intermittent “choices” imposed upon them by Maruyama. As two people trapped on the roof of a skyscraper, Jennifer Coolridge and Von Freymann fail completely in their attempts to incorporate playwright and director styles into their improv.
Other scenes of note include: “Viagra Falls,” featuring Jahn as a frustrated gent who cannot get rid of his chemically induced enhancement without the unwilling assistance his pal, Chris Parnell; and “Weekend,” showcasing McDonald as a larger-than-life spoiled brat who is determined to ruin the weekend fling of Dad (Parnell) and his girlfriend (Von Freymann).
The rest of the evening is dotted with such uninspired fodder as “Tough Love,” a humorless pairing of socially mismatched Coolridge and Adams; “Camp Holly Hock,” a predictable soliloquy by a liberated teen camp counselor (Von Freymann); and a creakingly unworkable ensemble piece wherein “United Nations” envoys (McDonald, Parnell, Adams, LeMarr & Coolridge) misunderstand the meaning of India representative Von Freymann’s use of the term “but love.”
Much of the energy for the evening is provided by the musical flamboyance of Willie Ettra (keyboards, guitar), percussionist Teddy Zambetti and the multi-instrumental talents of Probyn Gregory.