STAGE REVIEW : Hopeful Signs : The Acme Players aren't the hottest Saturday night comedy ticket in L.A., but the ensemble remains a sharply pitched, character-driven unit.


Name a comedy group that:

A) Has its own theater on a major thoroughfare.

B) Blends improv with scripted scenes.

C) Stores up enough material so that no two consecutive evening shows will repeat programs.

D) Liberally borrows from "Saturday Night Live" without a second thought.

E) Keeps the tone satirical without getting provocative, and topical without getting political.

Before you answer "The Groundlings," we forgot to mention that it:

F) Is situated north of Hollywood, specifically, in North Hollywood.

Give up? Understandable, since The Acme Players are clearly not the hottest Saturday night comedy ticket in L.A. And if a laugh ensemble dies or thrives on its ability to forge a distinct identity, then director M.D. Sweeney's group has a way to go before it gets over the inevitable label of "Groundlings in the Valley."

On the other hand, like its changing neighborhood on Lankershim Boulevard (the Acme Comedy Theatre is near two hip coffeehouses, video stores and more), Acme's new show, "Acme Wax Lips," sends out a lot of hopeful signs.

For each trite skit (such as Paul Rugg's and Chris Darga's borderline-racist spoof of two awful Iranian cable-TV entertainers, or a meeting of people "addicted to abduction" by bug-eyed aliens) there's an inspired one (Rugg's and Lisa Malone's ironic view of a tourist in an Irish pub, or John McCann's daffy culture clash of a yokel trying to help porn store customers). Although many of these scenes will no doubt be vaguely familiar--the Darga-Adam Carolla "That's Rough" routine is too reminiscent of SNL's classic "I Hate When That Happens" bit--the Acme ensemble is a sharply pitched, character-driven unit.

In fact, unlike The Groundlings, the Acmes are consistently good actors, able to rise above even flat material. A scene, for instance, depicting a drunk, a despondent Queen Elizabeth and two servants goes nowhere, but Malone's take on the wobbly Queen is a fine lampoon in itself. Musician Jonathan Green keeps the bits connected with a synthesizer working in overdrive, while the audience can keep up the comic mood at intermission with a gaze at the theater's gallery of Michael Metzger's wildly eclectic collage art.

Where and When

What: "Acme Wax Lips."

Location: Acme Comedy Theatre, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays. Indefinite.

Price: $12-$15.

Call: (818) 753-0650.

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