It’s pretty rare that a regional theater incorporates a fully improvised show into its season, so there’s certainly a slight sense of daring in the decision of Chicago’s reputable Lookingglass to do so. Ending what the theater calls its “season without a net,” improv pros and sitcom vets Joey Slotnick and Lauren Katz explore the neuroses of middle-class life in “Wants and Needs.” The performers have an easy rapport and well-honed sense of comic rhythm that makes them appealing to watch, but overall this comes off as generic stuff, lacking either the formal innovation or inspired execution that would make it anything more.
There’s no audience participation for “Wants and Needs.” Instead, it’s as if director Jim Dennen has shouted “bourgeois couple” to Slotnick and Katz and set them loose. The show is subtitled “An Improvised Exploration of Life in the Land of Plenty,” and the marketing materials promise an examination of the “veiled agendas and subconscious desires that motivate so many of our encounters.”
That’s a skillful evocation of vagueness, but the idea seems to be to restrain improv’s tendency toward the nearest sex joke and to explore more of life’s familiarities with comic depth and detail, instead of seeking the instantly outlandish.
That may well be a worthy notion, but the show feels somewhat unambitious, overly restrained, even verging on dull. The result of keeping the moments focused on the “wants and needs” means Katz and Slotnick end up identifying a lot of passive aggression and general unease in relationships that don’t vary much in tone from one to the other.
On opening night, there were the couple in therapy discussing the guy’s tendency to gnaw on himself, another couple trying to have a nice anniversary date at home while she worries incessantly about the kids staying at a neighbor’s, and yet another couple arguing — or, at least, nearly arguing — about the selection of door handles. When a sequence seems to have reached its end, the actors find a way to morph it into something else, rearranging the two chairs that comprise the set.
The gifted Slotnick and Katz allow the characters and relationships to emerge with admirable patience. There are the inevitable moments of self-consciousness as the sequences form — who are we, have we known each other long? — but these veterans give the aud a sense of comfort even if they portray characters mostly defined by psychological distress.
Katz provides more of the verbal dexterity. Faced with mild criticism from a mate, for example, her character responds with a pained attempt to avoid being defensive: “Honesty sometimes is a slap in the face, a kick in my chest …” Pause. “And I appreciate it.” Slotnick more often supplies the facial gestures — certainly entertaining — that display degrees of uncertainty or hurt or fear.
Once in a while, but too rarely, they hit on moments of raw comedy or insight into instantly recognizable insecurities.
On occasion “Wants and Needs” manages to make the act of improvising feel very much a metaphor for everyday life: It’s what do we do all day, after all, when we figure out what to say next, unsure if it will be received the way we intend or if we’ll expose something we’re trying to hide. Aren’t all relationships constantly re-created, in the moment?
But to be frank, that sounds more interesting than “Wants and Needs” came across in actuality.