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Theater Review: 'Groundlings State Penitentiary' at the Groundlings Theatre

May 26, 2011 |  5:30 pm

Groundlings State Penitentiary Here’s the weird thing about sketch comedy: Although it’s aimed at the easily distracted, anybody who does it well has our attention forever. (John Belushi died in 1982!) A night at the Groundlings Theatre, home of the legendary improv troupe that has unleashed an unbroken procession of comedians on “Saturday Night Live” (though not Belushi), may be the closest most of us will come to possessing the gift of prophecy. Here before your very eyes are the faces that will dominate the billboards of the future.

Also, it’s fun. The lobby is papered with photos of people you know, or at least like, better than some of your family members: Phil Hartman (I still mourn him), Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin, Kristen Wiig. The great band, the cool crowd and the thrill of paying to be amused put you in the mood to laugh even when nothing is funny. And when something is funny, being on the scene becomes exhilarating beyond words. The improv interludes—in which audience members suggest scenarios (deftly reframed by director Jim Rash) for the actors to run with—create an intimacy across the footlights that not even Skype can rival.

There’s always a lot going on at the Groundlings: classes, student showcases, “longform improv” shows. The current Friday and Saturday night show, “Groundlings State Penitentiary,” is a collection of skits and improv by the "main company"—specially invited graduates of the training program, precertified as very,very funny.

I’m not sure what any of the sketches has to do with prison, but they are solidly entertaining. Charlotte Newhouse plays a woman so sexually aggressive that her date (Jeremy Rowley) winds up hanging from a ceiling pipe, screeching “Get out!” Laird Macintosh is a hillbilly whose account of a Bigfoot sighting blossoms into a disconcerting interspecies love story. Jillian Bell lights up the stage as a committed but unsexy stripper. Newhouse, Laurel Coppock, and Ryan Gaul play a cappella singers who enthusiastically perform Toto’s “Africa” even though they are missing six members of their group (“Throat Culture”) and know only the background and percussion parts.

The six stars have a lovely rapport—working together toward the common goal of making us laugh, stepping modestly back when necessary to let one another shine. If you don’t like a sketch, wait three minutes. “State Penitentiary” could be a classic SNL episode, except that it doesn’t tank after the first hour.

“Groundlings State Penitentiary,” Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.  8 p.m. Fridays, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays.  Ends July 9.  $18.  (323) 934-4747, Ext. 37, www.Groundlings.com.  Running time:  2 hours.

Photo: Charlotte Newhouse, Laurel Coppock and Ryan Gaul as members of the college a cappella group "Throat Culture" in the sketch comedy show "Groundlings State Penitentiary." Credit: Shawn Bishop

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