Comedy Review: the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company at Sidney Harman Hall Forum

Funny-ready: A crew from the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe waits to make funny. Friday night's different cast made it look easy.
Funny-ready: A crew from the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe waits to make funny. Friday night's different cast made it look easy. (Upright Citizens Brigade)
By Celia Wren
Monday, February 1, 2010

Improv is the high-wire act of the performing arts world. But you'd hardly have guessed that from the 80 minutes of laid-back comedy the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company whipped up late Friday night, in the Sidney Harman Hall Forum. A strikingly relaxed atmosphere pervaded the show -- an early installment in a set of performances the troupe will present in D.C. through March 27.

Upright Citizens Brigade is a comedy powerhouse: It has outposts in New York City and Los Angeles and boasts alums like Amy Poehler and Rob Corddry. But watching the wry ad-libbing of Friday's performers -- the deadpan Neil Casey, the roguish Jonathan Gabrus and Brandon Gardner, and the wily Fran Gillespie -- was like hanging out with college buddies who just happen to be quick-witted and super-funny. (The engagements later this month and in March will feature different casts.)

An example of long-form improv -- essentially, inventing scenes and characters on the fly -- Friday's show had two halves. In the first, Casey interviewed an audience volunteer about her job (medical assistant), background (college in North Carolina), living situation (roommates) and preferred pastimes (um, drinking?). Meanwhile, his castmates rifled through -- and quipped about -- the brave draftee's purse. Seizing upon the situations and relationships alluded to during this third-degree session, the UCB wags extemporized mildly absurdist scenarios: a milkman who, instead of delivering dairy products, describes them; a pub crawl run with military precision; a scofflaw who breaks into homes and forces terrified women to sit beside him and watch "Love Actually."

In the show's second half, the troupe asked the audience to suggest a random word. "Bamboo" won out. The ensuing dramatic riffs conjured up, among other notions: a Borders bookstore where job training resembles a Shaolin kung fu apprenticeship; a prisoner-of-war camp where inmates brainstorm an autobiographical musical; and -- not surprisingly, given the current hoopla over the globe-trotting Tai Shan -- a sketch about pandas. Throughout the show, the four humorists seemed to recognize, in sync, exactly when a skit should end: One would utter a particularly zesty line, and, without any obvious signal, they'd all move on to the next zany play-let.

Performed for a full house that appeared to draw heavily from the under-30 set, the program yielded its share of punch lines: "You say 'misogynist'; I say 'empowering to men,' " a character quipped in a skit about pornographic paintings. But laugh-out-loud yuks played second fiddle to narrative exuberance: Never simply marking time till the next wisecrack, the actors plunged wholeheartedly, and with seeming effortlessness, into each loopy fiction as it came along. A Hollywood executive in attendance might have walked away with a decade's worth of Steve Carell movie concepts.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company

Monthly engagements through March 27. At the Harman Center for the Arts, 610 F Street NW, Washington. Each show about 80 minutes. Call 202-547-1122, option 1, or visit or

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