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‘No Shirt, No Shoes,’ Lots of Laughs for Groundlings

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The world’s fastest therapist (Steven Cragg) has two words for a woman telling him of her fear of being buried alive: “Stop it!” He listens smilingly to her confession of bulimia, then cuts her off: “That’s disgusting! Just stop it!” When she (Chase Winton) tries to talk about her mother, he firmly shakes his head: “We don’t go there!”

Like the shrink in that skit, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Groundlings” has no time for fat: This is a tight and funny evening in which Groundling members create one intense comic character after another. As a bonus, most of the skits have an interesting edge of despair or weirdness about them, and end with a sharp point, which you certainly can’t say about “Saturday Night Live” these days. As always, the show is at the Groundling Theatre in West Hollywood.

In fact, the written comedy is so well done that the improv portions of the show drag in comparison. Michael McDonald stands out playing a string of characters whose neuroses are so overwhelming that his skits cross over from hilarious to disturbing and back again.

A towering man with a boyish face, McDonald plays a job applicant in “Self Sabotage,” a man facing two interviewers who seem to be calm and compassionate men. Nevertheless, McDonald’s nervousness mushrooms, until he becomes hysterical when he cannot open his briefcase. Then he begins to sound like a strange 9-year-old boy who has gone through est. “You know what--I don’t need what you’re doing,” he tells his tormentors, who of course are doing nothing.

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In “Wedding Night,” McDonald plays a virgin newlywed. He climbs into bed with his new bride (the winning Holly Mandel), and they cautiously begin to touch. McDonald goes bizarro, rubbing his chest with his hand and going moony-faced into his own private erotica. It is a creepy sight, made funny by the reactions of the stunned bride, who seems to be looking at a lifetime of horrifying sex.

The show tends to favor insane men and sensible women. Mike Hitchcock brings a manic twist to the Hollywood agent who gives seminars on how to make money off of “magical” babies. John Crane plays a man who becomes unhinged after a friend’s funeral and begins grabbing his fat in handfuls and yelling, “Why? Why?” David Jahn is very funny as an apathetic male stripper. The others in this talented cast are Ana Gasteyer, Brian Palermo, Mary Jo Smith, Roger Eschbacher and Sean Hogan.

The evening culminates in a number from that new Broadway musical “Montana,” in which the “freemen” and the Unabomber perform enthusiastic solos. It’s a perfect coda to a perfectly unhinged evening.

* “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Groundlings,” Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 and 10 p.m. $17.50. (213) 934-9700. Running time: 2 hours.


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