STAGE REVIEW : 'GROUNDLINGS': UP FOR LAUGHS

Times Theater Writer

Faced with a title like "Night of the Living Groundlings" what is one to expect? Zombies?

Forget it. When it comes to those off-the-wall Groundlings, a comic sketch by any other name is just a comic sketch. Sure, there are three giant tombstones on stage at the start of their new Friday/Saturday show on Melrose, but let's face it: They're only there to serve as screens from behind which members of the company prance out like prize loonies and are introduced.

In this latest edition of the Groundlings' slick and sassy kind of comedy, the laughs come two-a-minute at least, reeking of success. They're fast, funny, furious and legitimate, underscored by some of the snappiest, zippiest music you'll ever want to hear (the terrific Alan Axelrod at the electronic keyboard, sounding like a full orchestra with Steve Clark on drums).

It's all wonderful, wily, beguiling entertainment, but, I ask you, is it theater? Broadly speaking, yes, but only broadly speaking.

Increasingly, as graduate Groundlings have moved on to notoriety in television and film (notably Laraine Newman, Pee-wee Herman, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman), this den of absolute zanies looks more and more like a rookery of shiny new faces to feed into the television maw. Things could be worse. The Groundlings (who are appearing Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on KCET Channel 28's "California Stories") may single-handedly be responsible for the rebirth of the comedy variety show.

They are so swift and so good at what they do that one would encourage all aspiring actors--dramatic and comic--to put themselves through the rigorous and liberating training that this kind of loose-limbed, fast-thinking, bald-faced comedy exacts.

With only minor digressions into improv, the first part of "Night of the Living Groundlings" is chiefly written and rehearsed material, marked by imagination and topicality (a super take-off on those asininely sexy jeans commercials; girlfriends so locked into their own "Private Jokes" that they automatically exclude any guys who try to get in on them on a date; a Western set in ancient Rome; a food sampler in a supermarket--written and performed by Cathy Shambley--with a super-diplomatic phrase for every customer: "You know, a lot of people would have taken that toothpick out first . . . ").

The second half of the program is more mixed, both literally and artistically--half pre-set material and half true improv, which always carries with it an element of uncertainty. Altogether, though, the show sustains well, with only the final 20 minutes or so, when the company and the audience are deep into improvising, starting to wear.

Most notable in the company are Don Woodard and Deanna Oliver who pop up in a variety of situations, each handled with greater expertise than the last. Both have also contributed sketch material, in one of which, "Sunday School," Oliver makes mincemeat out of religious history, and in another of which, "Holiday Dinner" (a round-robin of hateful cross-generational behavior among the women of one family), Nancy Dye gives a stunning portrayal of the sort of obnoxious teen-ager you want to kill.

Steve Hibbert and Hilaury Stern who, among other things, wrote and perform the jeans commercial routine, seem particularly adept at doing both, but it is George McGraff who gets the highest praise for making the most of the least in "Bad Mood" (about a couple driving to, then from, then to a party she wants to attend and he doesn't). It's a marvel of unspoken overstatement. McGraff also gets to have written the evening's funniest line in a solo sketch called "Judy Collins": "Don't you love what time has done to her eyebrows? . . . "

And so it goes.

There is more unevenness and unpredictability in the improvised segments (though artistic director Tom Maxwell is by now immensely skillful at steering the company through those rapids and knows when it's time to change course and how). Dollar for dollar, "Night of the Living Groundlings" is a lot of entertainment for the money--and the Melrose Avenue ambiance (something that did not exist when the Groundlings first built their theater) seems tailored to this group's humor. It's the perfect address for a show as tuned in to its times as it is possible to be.

'NIGHT OF THE LIVING GROUNDLINGS'

A new show written and performed by members of this group of comic artists. Lights Trey Stokes. Sound John Voors. Stage manager Richard Wright. Music Alan Axelrod. Writers Deanna Oliver, George McGraff, Cathy Shambley, Melanie Graham, Don Woodard, Kathy Griffin, Steve Hibbert, Hilaury Stern, Nancy Dye. Cast George McGraff, Kathy Griffin, Melanie Graham, Nancy Dye, Deryl Carroll, Don Woodard, Phil Therrien, Deanna Oliver, Hilaury Stern, Mindy Sterling, Jay McCaslin, Steve Hibbert, Kay Heberle, Cathy Shambley, Tom Maxwell. Musicians Alan Axelrod, Steve Clark. Tickets $11.50-$12.50. Performances at 7307 Melrose Ave., are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 and 10 p.m., indefinitely (213-934-9700).

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