Late night's newest host: Heeere's Charlie
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, March 9, 2012
Adams Morgan at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night isn't necessarily where one ventures to see theater. But then "The Charlie Visconage Show" has a way of warping your very definition of theater.
Staged weekly at the intimate D.C. Arts Center, "The Charlie Visconage Show" stars a handful of area improv actors in a bare-bones revival of the late-night talk shows from the golden age of television.
At the helm of the show, which began a 10-week run at the DCAC this winter (it will take a two-week break beginning March 22), is a local improv actor named, naturally, Charlie Visconage.
Visconage had been unemployed for a stint last fall and, after getting his hands on the book "The War for Late Night," about the world of talk shows, decided to pass a portion of his free time recording a series of podcast interviews called Philistine Radio. Eventually, Visconage approached Topher Bellavia, who until last year was managing director of Washington Improv Theatre, with an idea to bring a D.C. talk show to the stage.
"The first thing he said was, 'I was thinking I could sit behind a card table,' " Bellavia recalls. "And I thought, 'That will really lower your status in front of an audience. You need a nice desk.' "
In fact, Bellavia walked away from that meeting with ideas churning: "I thought to myself, 'What incredible fun that would be.' It would be a great opportunity to showcase local artists, and I thought two ideas could really mesh - having a 'Tonight Show' format, and along with that have an interview with someone who has had success in D.C. as an artist."
The show that Visconage and Bellavia, who became executive producer, ultimately conceived takes its cues from "The Tonight Show" when Jack Paar hosted in the late 1950s and early '60s. (Visconage, however, is in his mid-20s, pale, tall and awfully earnest - he can't help but remind one of Conan O'Brien.)
Each week, the audience is warmed up by a local stand-up comic before a tuxedo-clad Visconage settles in at his desk for a chitchat with his sidekick - who in this case is like neither Hugh Downs (Paar's partner) nor Andy Richter, but a boozy, leggy blonde played by actress Taylor Durant. There is an opening monologue of jokes derived from the day's headlines (it's delivered complete with cue cards). The show's tone is set by a musician in the vein of Kevin Eubanks: Mickey Daguiso, an actor and keyboardist with an impeccable sense of timing.
In the absence of celebrities and, well, Joan Embery, the show has brought in a parade of locally plugged-in guests, including Allison Stockman, artistic director of Constellation Theatre; Mark Ruppert, the founder of the 48 Hour Film Project; and S.M. Shrake, head of the Story League.
Where the show's guests are real, however, most everything else is simply zany fun - so much so that it's hard to tell whether "The Charlie Visconage Show" is an homage to the Jay Lenos and David Lettermans of the world, or a sendup.
There was the time, for example, when guest Julianne Brienza, executive director of the Capital Fringe Festival, found her interview interrupted by a staging of Euro avant-garde theater by two wanna-be Fringe producers, who were actually played by "The Charlie Visconage Show" writers, who also happen to play writers on the show.
The moment was laugh-out-loud funny for the audience. But Visconage, a trained improv performer, knows that it won't always work out that way in a talk-show format. What if the guest just isn't funny?
"I'm just trying to get the laughs going," Visconage confesses. "There's zero way to ensure that they're funny. . . . I find that the onus falls on me to keep it entertaining."