Afruit fly meditates on the meaning of life during his last hours on earth. An old-fashioned gumshoe gets colorized. A time-traveling divorced man pops in to warn his future wife about their marital woes. The New Testament gets written--by committee. Roget (of thesaurus fame) is interrogated for a crime, but can't find the precise words to describe it. Fertilization goes ballet in "The Pas de Deux for Sperm and Egg."
"The idea was to be different," explained performer/director/co-producer Gary Kroeger of the five-person comedy revue "Mental Cruelty," the maiden production of Brain Trust West at the Callboard Theatre in West Hollywood. (On Oct. 12, the show transferred intact from the Tamarind after a successful six-week run.) The brainchild of Kroeger and performer/co-writer/co-producer David Fury, "Mental Cruelty" signals a dazzling, welcome return for smart sketch comedy.
"One reason for not doing improv is to be a little more presentational, let the audience see what they're getting," said co-writer/co-producer Mike Colasuonno. "This is our first show, and we have some things we want to say."
Added performer/co-writer Tom Virtue, "The chance you take with improv is, it can slop up your show if it goes bad. It also makes the evening a little looser. We knew that what we had here was tight and concise."
Another big distinction is the intelligence factor. "The difference is we're not talking down to the audience," Fury said. "We're setting a standard, letting them come to us. We're not playing for the lowest common denominator. We're playing comedy for people who are well-read, educated. Television sets a standard to play to middle America; we're playing to an audience who can appreciate other things."
Yet Kroeger, who was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" from 1982 to 1985, hopes that no one will be put off by a brainy image. "We're smart, but not that smart," he kidded, referring to the troupe, all in their late 20s to mid 30s. "It's not like we're catering to the intelligentsia. For example, in the sperm and egg piece, we're dealing with the reproductive process--but it's also a ballet. Our basic premise is that people are smart. People have heard of Roget's Thesaurus."
Although they come from very different comedic backgrounds (Fury as founder of New York's Brain Trust; husband and wife Colasuonno and Judy Nazemetz, from Chicago City Limits; Sherry Bilsing from Theatersportz and the Groundlings; Virtue from Second City, and Kroeger from Chicago's Practical Theatre), Fury thinks the common denominator is that their launching pads are all "intelligent groups." And when he and Kroeger were assembling the troupe, comedic actors were the primary goal--as opposed to improv comics.
"I've worked with people who were magnificent improvisers," Nazemetz noted. "But they'd create a sketch, set it--then a week later, they'd get tired and start inserting new lines. And in three weeks the sketch wouldn't work anymore." On the flip side, said Fury, many actors are intimidated by the improv process: "They're used to showing up for the first day of rehearsal and being handed a script.' You say, 'Let's make something up, play around.' But a lot of actors need that security blanket."
At some point, of course, the material does get set. And now, two months into the run, there's no fear of venturing into dangerous, unknown territory. So how do they keep the adrenalin pumping?
"How do you do 'Fiddler' for three years?" Virtue asked rhetorically. "At this point, you're an actor doing your job. This is a performance, and it is a play." Said Bilsing, "For me, this is the most fun time--when you've got the beats down; technically the show is working. So that part is gone from your mind, and you get to make it more personal, play with it every night." Added Kroeger, "Doing this can get very automatic and mechanical--especially when it's rapid-fire lines. So that's when I try to go blank and make it real again."
The attention they've been getting is certainly one incentive to keep the work fresh. The same day the rave Los Angeles Times review ran last month, a "Tonight Show" scout was in the audience; the result was Brain Trust West's recent appearance with Jay Leno. (As Fury says proudly, "We were told we were the first comedy group in six years to be invited on.") Last week, "Entertainment Tonight" showed up to visit. They've also been besieged by cable companies dangling various development deals.
Kroeger tries to keep it in perspective. "I know the reality of the business," he said simply, "and I'm not jaded. But I got plucked from a very similar thing to do 'SNL,' and I thought I was going to change the face of comedy. Well, the reality is, it didn't turn my life around. Also, a lot of our humble charm is this very bare-bones sort of presentation. When you get a little notice, you start seeing people with the attitude, 'OK, show me how funny you are.' But when you don't expect anything and you see this much energy--well, it's a discovery."
And when it doesn't work?
Bilsing admits she takes the off-nights personally. "You think, 'What are we doing wrong? Somehow we've turned them off.' " Fury, who has written much of the show, added: "I'm more conscious of how the scenes I wrote go, rather then the scenes I'm in. Of course, when an audience is dying, we do start to question our performance. But we're also aware if we've done a good show and it hasn't been received well. And we're conscious when we do a bad show and they give us a standing ovation."
With their shared power base comes an often volatile dynamic.
"That's the creative process," Colasuonno said with a shrug. As long as no one's hurting each other--and everyone here has a strong point of view; no one's wishy-washy--you work it out." Added Nazemetz, "We're doing rewrites up till the night before opening. We can put up a show in a week, a sketch in a day. We're ready to go: Because we know what we want, we know how to get there, we know it'll all come together. On the way, sure, we may fight like cats and dogs. But when the lights come on, we've got it."