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”).
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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.