How do improv comics unwind after a show? The four women of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s “Damned If You Do” already seem incredibly loose, chatting with the Woolly Mammoth audience, getting to know a few of the customers, cracking chummy jokes as we all relax and get familiar.
But you know they need to kick back when it’s done because this kind of improv is such a stressful high-wire act. And as the quartet swiftly invents skits based on what they discover about a few patrons, things definitely stall out sometimes.
That’s the whole fun of it, though, if you can stomach the anxiety and the dry patches. When the performers connect, the jokes are not pulled off the can-you-believe-it news or built on the ba-dum-bum of polished standup. The laughs circle back to what these sharp-eyed comics — Alex Dickson, Monique Moses, Shannon O’Neill and Molly Thomas — have learned in front of us about a couple of us. It’s bonding, and explosively cathartic.
Upright Citizens Brigade is the Manhattan-based troupe started by Chicago-trained improv artists including Amy Poehler, and though it’s performed by four women, that’s not the point. (Dickson will be replaced by Connor Ratliff July 19-29). “Damned If You Do” takes one audience member’s life and performs it with two endings, but what actually happens isn’t as pointed or as coherent as that description makes it sound. They’re really winging it.
It starts as the performers vet a couple of volunteers, and there’s an irresistible anthropological allure in listening to people talking about their lives. Wednesday night the cast eventually selected a woman who works in a domestic violence shelter by day and a homeless shelter by night. The discursive, unpredictable 20-minute interview that was then conducted by O’Neill with this young woman was similar to — and better than — most celebrity chats at the late-night TV-show desks.
That’s the raw material. Making sensible, hopefully uproarious skits of it on a bare stage is the game. Like in baseball: there are swings and misses, some scratching and waiting, a lot of hoping, a few foul balls and maybe an error in the field. But then one of the comics lays down a bunt and steals second, and the next hits a triple and they’re flying around the bases as the crowd roars. It’s really that alive whenever there’s a rally, and Wednesday’s event never sagged for long.
Running gags emerged about everything from Britney Spears to simply clocking in and out of work, and during the interview with O’Neill the volunteer handed the cast the equivalent of a steak dinner when she growled something about how her dark side got unleashed with her younger sister. The cast came back after intermission for another round — the phrase seems apt, since you can bring in your drinks from Woolly’s bar. That short set skewering media analysis (because that’s what someone in the balcony did for a living) was worthwhile, even if O’Neill eventually said what everyone was thinking: time to wrap it up.
That’s an art, too, and something they nailed in the first act — finding a great ending for a story you’re telling on the fly.
Damned If You Do, by Upright Citizens Brigade. About two hours. Through July 29 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. $20-$35. 202-393-3939 or woollymammoth.net