Two chairs, two pairs of pajamas and two exceptionally creative sketch artists make for a surreal, 90-minute trip through the outer limits of comedy in the Pajama Men’s “In the Middle of No One.” What begins as a series of hilariously disconnected, seemingly nonsensical bits involving time travel, space aliens and sundry feats of derring-do unexpectedly weaves together into a single emotionally satisfying narrative as Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez play every part in their elaborate ensemble, a breakout attraction at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy fest that feels ripe for restaging anywhere from a living room to Carnegie Hall.
With no props and no costumes beyond their signature sleepwear, the Pajama Men — Allen, who’s like a Swiss Army knife of unlimited impressions, and elastic-limbed, vaguely Harpo Marx-looking Chavez — pantomime their way through a dizzying array of silly characters, accompanied by minimal mood cues from musician Kevin Hume. Their inventions range from a benevolent, jive-talking Ice Beast to a saloon full of tough-guy cowboys (one bets his wife on the existence of aliens, to which the other quips, “I see your wife and raise your kids”).
Some of the bits memorably stand on their own, such as a loony marionette routine, while others resurface with increasing hilarity as the show unfolds. Consider the South American “givitumi bird,” which earns its name making off-color noises better suited to the business end of a 1-900 call, or an alien whose forehead has a mind of its own. Both lend themselves to a degree of ad libbing, which gives the show a lively, off-the-cuff energy and ensures that no two performances will be the same.
At first, trying to follow the duo’s loosely structured antics feels like channel-surfing between classic radio plays, as the comics duck between old-timey genres with uncanny alacrity: One moment, we’re watching a tender parlor scene in which a gentleman explorer, stopping to visit his wife and newborn son in the hospital, announces that he can’t be fenced in (Allen plays both mother and child); the next, we’ve been whisked to another dimension, where an Owen Wilson-sounding adventurer disembarks from his spacecraft, only to get stuck negotiating parking fees with a sarcastic robot.
Roughly an hour in, however, a common thread emerges — more of a slippery yarn, really — that has something to do with an intergalactic effort to thwart the invention of time travel. It’s an inspired device for such a freewheeling show, one that conveniently ties together most of the loose ends. The Pajama Men have clearly sat through enough cookie-cutter serials to identify where the payoff goes, bringing the story’s absurd father-son relationship (“I never knew my father. He died before I was conceived,” Chavez quips) to the forefront just as the production reaches its dizzying climax. In the end, the best joke is the fact that they’ve made us care.