Monday night, a woman named Linda had her 15 minutes of fame overextended by about two hours in a performance of the Improbable Theater’s “Lifegame.” They’re calling it “a new kind of theater,” but the improvisational show at the Jane Street Theater may strike some observers as being awfully reminiscent of old TV. With remote control in hand, you might fantasize of switching to Jerry Springer after about 10 minutes of Linda’s life story. Who wouldn’t rather listen to transsexuals who abuse their pets than the childhood memories of someone who dug holes in her Jersey back yard and made mud pies? As with all effective theater, “Lifegame” forces you to reflect on your own life. The difference here is the realization that yours isn’t so dull after all. By comparison, anyway.
This observation isn’t meant to knock Linda. As the Improbable Theater’s “pre-selected and completely willing” guest for the evening, she displayed an infectious self-deprecating wit that never failed to carry the show over its more languorous moments of middling improv. As her gentle interviewer, the Improbable’s Lee Simpson is definitely ready for primetime. But there is the problem: the troupe’s chief permanent asset is a fast-quip confessor who is more tube-trained than theater animal.
“We are on a journey together,” Simpson softly informed the audience. “We will spontaneously enact what we have just heard from our guest for the evening.” He claimed that the seven-member cast had spent “maybe 30 seconds” with that mystery person, who changes each performance. His first question to Linda produced the answer, “I’m a mom.” He then asked her to complete the sentence “Life is…”
Linda responded, “Life is what you make it and life is now.” Not bad for spur of the moment, but why spend an evening with an aspiring writer of Hallmark cards when you could be listening to Noel Coward or Gore Vidal or Charles Busch? (I’d have hit the remote control right there, three minutes into the show.)
As with all improv, some moments are magic, others rely on obvious formula. Best scene was Linda’s first passionate kiss at a drive-in movie, with Linda feeding the actors their lines. Too forced was Linda’s high school girl gang reimagined as a Bette Davis movie or her second marriage turned into a Tennessee Williams play. With the latter enactment, Linda instructed the actors to think of Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando in “The Fugitive Kind.” Sometimes “Lifegame” does make you wish you were home watching AMC.
To paraphrase the aforementioned Coward, there is potency to cheap theater. After intermission, the deus ex machina of the modern stage (disease) dropped its other shoe and we learned that Linda has survived lymphoma. The audience at the Jane Street went right into Oprah mode as Linda told us of a with-God-as-my-witness moment on the back porch when she raised her fist to the sky and yelled, “Fuck you. It’s not going to be this way!” An actress from the Improbable troupe then repeated those words so that a truly profound life-and-death moment could be reduced to a Lifetime cliche, complete with swelling music, a deep blue cyclorama sky and fake crickets chirping in the dark.
Other bathetic enactments from the troupe included a 5-year-old Linda watching her father develop film in a darkroom and a projection into the future when Linda, at age 90, imagines she is a tree. A sugar maple, to be precise.
Didn’t Katharine Hepburn go through this with Barbara Walters?