Shadowbox’s best skits stand up to repeat viewings

This original version of Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time (seen here) appeared in Shadowbox’s 2013 Halloween show. The new version again features Edelyn Parker (right) as Bloody Mary. (Studio 66 photo)
This original version of Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time (seen here) appeared in Shadowbox’s 2013 Halloween show. The new version again features Edelyn Parker (right) as Bloody Mary. (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

Catching the annual Best of Shadowbox Live show gave me the chance to cogitate on just what makes a skit (or a movie or a TV show) worth seeing more than once. My conclusion was that it’s pretty much the same kind of thing that makes it worth seeing in the first place.

If a skit bases its appeal on a single twist, chances are it won’t be as much fun when you’ve already seen it and know what’s coming. But it’s also likely that you didn’t get more than a few chuckles out of it the first time around.

I’m thinking, for example, of Coming Out and Going Home, in which college student Benjy (Jimmy Mak) visits his parents (Robbie Nance and Stacie Boord) with a secret he’s dying to get off his chest. The secret, as you might guess from the title, is that he’s gay. The revelation gets an unexpected response.

But the real twist comes after Benjy unloads a second secret that he considers less momentous and is met with the kind of response he expected from his first revelation. OK, it’s a clever idea, but that’s all it is: a single clever idea. The rest of the skit simply tries to build on that idea, and it does it in a rather formulaic way.

The skits that remain the most fun over multiple viewings are those that are entertaining for multiple reasons.

Take Horror for Kids, the latest installment of Sneak a Peek, in which two TV hosts preview films that supposedly are coming to the multiplex. It boasts the usual back-and-forth between the insipid John (David Whitehouse) and the long-suffering Shelly (Julie Klein), which is always fun. Beyond that, it also has a trio of clever scenes from horror films based on children’s TV shows. The funniest reimagines Dora the Explorer (Boord) as a murderer but retains those educational moments during which audience members are prompted to shout out answers to her questions. Example: Which of these implements is best for bashing in someone’s head?

Other welcome repeats include Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time, in which a trio of girls accidentally summon the spirit of a long-dead murderer; and Good Driver Discount, in which an insurance company tries to make a TV commercial but keeps running headlong into insulting stereotypes. Besides their clever concepts, both benefit from funny dialogue and characters. In the first, Stephanie Shull is especially amusing as an elderly woman who over-indulges in face makeup. In the second, an out-of-her-element Bloody Mary (Edelyn Parker) begins aping the “OMG”-spouting girls who brought her back to life.

The best of the repeated skits is the last, Face to Facebook, which pokes fun at all-too-common denizens of social media: the conspiracy theorist, the champion of political correctness, the mom who posts photo after photo of her newborn, and on and on. It’s sure to make you click “like” unless you’re a total “tard brain.”

Besides repeating the best of the previous year’s skits, The Best of Shadowbox Live also repeats the best musical numbers. It’s less of a mystery what makes these worth hearing again: catchy cover tunes augmented by great vocals and instrumentals. My favorite resurrections (and their lead vocalists) include Face Down (Boord), I Put a Spell on You (Shull), Father Figure (JT Walker III) and Led Zeppelin’s exotic Kashmir (Klein).

The Best of Shadowbox Live continues through Sept. 6 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows July 4, 12, 19, 25-26 or Aug. 1). Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

How do you spell ‘comedy’? C-R-I-N-G-E

Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)
Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Back when I was arts editor for Columbus’s now-defunct The Other Paper, one of our ace critics turned in a review of a horror flick with a grisly scene: The heroes dispatched an attacker by sticking his head in a microwave oven and holding it there until it exploded.

Puzzled, I asked the critic how the filmmakers got around the fact that microwaves don’t work when the door is open. They didn’t care about such technicalities, he replied gleefully. “They just wanted to make someone’s head explode!”

It seems like an odd comparison, but a couple of scenes from Bad Words reminded me of that incident. Smart but antisocial 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has wormed his way into an adolescent spelling bee, and he proceeds to launch underhanded and exceedingly nasty psychological attacks on two of his competitors in an attempt to undermine their confidence.

Like the microwave offensive, the attacks make no logical sense. First, Guy’s spelling skills are so advanced that the kids pose no real threat to him, so why bother? And second, if his dirty tricks were exposed (and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be in the real world), he would be ejected from the competition faster than you can say “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

So why did the filmmakers include the attacks in their sordid comedy? Because, to paraphrase that wise critic, they just wanted to see Guy act mean to two defenseless kids.

Another comparison between the microwave scene and the spelling-bee attacks: You have to have a sadistic streak in order to enjoy them.

Well, maybe that’s too harsh. A cross between 2003’s Bad Santa and the stage musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bad Words seeks the kind of laughs that grow out of shockingly inappropriate and irresponsible behavior. Now, I’m as susceptible to this kind of comedy as anyone—I loved Bad Santa, for example—but Bad Words inspires more cringes than guffaws.

A key weakness is that scriptwriter Andrew Dodge and first-time director Bateman don’t sufficiently explain Guy’s motivation for crashing a contest that’s meant for kids. We surmise that it has something to do with his own failure as a bee competitor when he was an eighth-grader, and possibly with the recent death of his mother. But when we learn his real reason for entering the contest, it’s hard not to think, “That’s it?” His ultimate goal doesn’t begin to explain his actions.

Another weakness is that, despite its hard-edged sense of humor, the film eventually gets stuck in a sappily predictable rut. As soon as a lonely 10-year-old spelling whiz named Chaitanya Chopra enters the scene and tries his best to befriend the eccentric adult, we know it’s only a matter of time before Guy’s icy heart begins to melt.

If Bad Words remains marginally palatable, it’s due solely to the strength of its able cast. Besides the understated Bateman, the players include Kathryn Hahn as the reporter who sometimes shares Guy’s bed, Allison Janney as an angry bee official and Philip Baker Hall (known to Seinfeld fans as no-nonsense library detective Mr. Bookman) as the bee’s founder. But no one contributes more to the film than young Rohan Chand, who is consistently adorable as the indomitable Chaitanya.

Without Chaitanya’s lovable presence, Bad Words would be simply an exercise in misanthropic excess.

Bad Words opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Death turns friends into DIY morticians

Sam (Michael Galusick) has to prepare deceased girlfriend Erin (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) for burial in She’s Dead (photo by Andy Batt)
Sam (Michael Galusick) has to prepare deceased girlfriend Erin (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) for burial in She’s Dead (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

There are people in the world who enjoy Happy Endings. I know this because I used to work with such a person, who otherwise seemed fairly normal.

If you also like the ABC sitcom but feel it could use more (a) cussing, (b) pot smoking and (c) death, you might enjoy MadLab’s world-premiere production of She’s Dead.

Like Happy Endings, Joe Giordano’s extended one-act is about a group of friends who spend a lot of time dealing with each other’s problems. Unlike the TV show, She’s Dead particularly focuses on one problem that has no solution: Erin (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr), girlfriend of Sam (Michael Galusick), is dying.

Complicating the situation, Erin insists that her friends skip the funeral home and prepare her body for burial on their own. She also wants them to skip the cemetery, which means they have to find a place to bury her remains, hopefully without running afoul of the law in the process.

Did I mention that there’s cussing going on? Yes, there are F-bombs aplenty, but they’re really more like F-cluster bombs. (Warning: Here comes one.) When Sam is feeling justifiably sorry for himself, for instance, he holds forth with something like: “My fucking life is so fucking fucked! Fuck!”

And did I mention there’s pot smoking going on? There is. In fact, one gets the feeling that the friends are more stoned, more often, than they’re letting on. That would help to explain some of their behavior.

In a key scene set after Erin’s death, Sam attempts to follow her pre-issued instructions by stuffing cotton balls in her vagina, only to be greeted with a stream of urine. The mishap sends the entire group into a laughing jag, a reaction that’s hard to understand considering Sam has just lost his life partner and the rest have lost a dear friend.

If they’re all exceptionally high, the reaction might be slightly understandable. Even so, the scene comes off more like an old Cheech and Chong routine than like real life.

That’s the problem with She’s Dead: tone. It occasionally provides some good laughs (one thing, for me, that sets it apart from Happy Endings), but they too often come at the expense of the playwright’s attempts to insert a little heart into the proceedings.

Director Nikki Smith tries mightily to incorporate both the laughs and the heart, even stopping occasionally for a few seconds of mood music when it’s time to switch gears, but the spastically uneven script thwarts her. She does coax good performances out of the cast, however.

St. Cyr is especially impressive, making Erin an unexpectedly bubbly presence in the scenes set before her death. She’s also a believable corpse in the scenes set after her death (which alternate with the former in a flashback/flash-forward fashion).

As Sam, Galusick does a good job of carrying much of the play’s emotional baggage.

Playing Sam and Erin’s friends are Maria Ritchey as Addie; Brendan Michna as her perpetually confused husband, Brian; and Jay Hobson as their gay friend, Max—I mean, Mack. A tearful Randi Morgan also shows up occasionally as Erin’s mother.

Inserting a dollop of satire, Aran Carr and Erik Sternberger play Rose and Jack, respectively, in a bizarre revision of the movie Titanic that Sam is writing in an attempt to deal with his grief. Unfortunately, Giordano undermines that satire near the end, then tries to un-undermine it, offering further proof that She’s Dead is due for some revision before it returns to the stage.

She’s Dead will be presented at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 23 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.