At a glance, it looks like the biggest expense involved in the Flying Karamozov Brothers’ enjoyably low-tech juggling show, “4Play,” is the insurance. On a set of cardboard boxes, the quartet toss around everything from a meat cleaver to a flaming torch to a block of flesh-searing dry ice, but the jugglers themselves are only half the fun. The other half is the obnoxious Gotham audience, encouraged to misbehave by the performers and enthusiastically sinking to the occasion. Property seems tailor-made for touring engagements, but seen-it-all New Yorkers make its run at the Minetta Lane worth checking out.The show starts off with a simple laugh at the audience’s expense, then grows progressively more complex and even surreal. The Brothers carry out a destructive taiko drumming demonstration on some of the boxes, juggle in sync with metal-palmed gloves and sing a half-dozen folksy-sounding tunes with offbeat accompaniment from their fellow performers. Sometimes, the latter involves one guy hitting frame drums with the pins he’s also juggling; sometimes it involves two guys playing the same guitar with one hand and juggling to each other with the free hand. As the jokes and the music get more technically involved (and the jabs at the aud more pointed), you can hear theatergoers cackling to themselves. Finally, the moment arrives: Dmitri (Paul Magid) will juggle any three things chosen by the audience, as long as they are heavier than an ounce, lighter than 10 lbs., and no larger than a breadbox. If he fails, he will suffer the indignity of a well-flung pie. Word about this bit must have gotten around before the perf reviewed. The guy quietly unlacing his slush-and-mud-covered boot certainly had a malicious gleam in his eye, but the final three objects chosen by the giggling house were a snowball someone smuggled into the theater that was nearly big enough to violate the 10 lb. rule, an open umbrella, and a stick of butter. No pies were forthcoming. There must be something in the Off Broadway water — December brought us a nearly identical act at the New Victory Theater called “Chestnuts Roasting on the Flaming Idiots,” and which act you prefer will depend on whether you favor physical skill or comic timing. The Karamazov brothers write themselves funny material and are pretty superior jugglers, but the ability to deliver a joke is spread unevenly throughout the cast. Magid is the funniest of the four, with bashful borscht-belter Roderick Kimball (who plays Pavel) a close second. The Idiots were more at ease with each other, but their act favored the enjoyably stupid over the spectacular, mostly because they were just as entertaining picking on each other as they were flinging tenpins in the air. Here, auds get a generous helping of spectacle, and the show is calibrated so well by Magid (who also directs) that it seems to get better as it goes. You can quibble with individual sections — a bit featuring Polish hillbillies wears out its welcome, although Mark Ettinger’s appalling drag is a gas — but nobody leaves the theater without a big grin.
Minetta Lane Theater; 388 seats; $50 top
A Flying Karamozov Brothers presentation of a circus show in two acts, written by Paul Magid and the Flying Karamozov Brothers. Directed by Magid. Music direction, Mark Ettinger.
Set, Flying Karamozov Brothers; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, David Hutson; original music, Ettinger, Doug Wieselman, Howard Patterson; juggling, Roderick Kimball; choreography, Doug Elkins; production stage manager, Emily Cornelius. Opened Feb. 11, 2009. Reviewed Feb. 10. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
Dmitri - Paul Magid Alexei - Mark Ettinger Pavel - Roderick Kimball Zossima - Stephen Bent