Hollywood's red-bricked Groundling Theatre, which turns out successful comedy writers and actors with by now predictable regularity, may be the most reliable talent factory since the heyday of the Peking Opera.
So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that its sketch shows have become nearly as ritualized over the years. "The Groundlings 30th Anniversary Box Set," a new two-night package show, is no exception: Both "volumes" are 90-minute showcases of three- to five-minute scenes, peppered with a few improvs, with Willie Etra's tight band rocking through the blackouts.
As always, the short-sketch format means that it's hard to have a bad time -- faltering sketches get a quick hook and it's on to the next -- and equally hard to be surprised, or to feel a sense of dramatic development over an evening of unrelated highs and lows.
What we can develop over the course of a show, though, is a strong taste for a few breakout performers. You don't have to be a talent scout to recognize that the wispy Jim Rash handily dominates "Box Set." A bald, bespectacled imp who's typecast on TV as an Everygeek, Rash is blessedly unmoored from type here, assaying over the two nights a flouncing puppeteer in a blond wig, a loopily childlike trucker, a loudmouthed assembly-line worker, a bookish petty thief and a smilingly terrible solo-show actor. He's that rare performer who combines an utterly peculiar sensibility with an unerring sense of audience connection.
He's not alone onstage by any means: Kristen Wiig is another wizard of versatility, mostly in hilariously wilting supporting roles; Jeremy Rowley's sharp eye for the finer shadings of absurdity comes through in all of his sketches, particularly in his mercilessly pathetic portrait of a plug-dumb job applicant at a Washington Mutual Bank; Melissa McCarthy's fearless, almost perky gift for effrontery infuses her various unglamorous turns; and Nat Faxon makes a funny lug in several scenes, usually assisted by unabashedly horrible wigs.
Injecting a tetchy gay sensibility into the relentlessly straight Groundlings milieu is Mitch Silpa with a pointed parody of the Exodus "ex-gay" program and a saucy scene of restaurant crypto-cruising. Typifying the troupe's more typical guy's-guy team players are the likes of stocky Damon Jones, bright Jim Cashman, laconic Jordan Black and tall, unflappable Brian Palermo, who glides assuredly through his last hurrah as a Groundling.
It's difficult to generalize about the tone and temperature of such disparate, unconnected sketches, except to say that they're particularly dry and cool this time out and refreshingly free of the sort of character merchandising one sometimes witnesses on the stage that launched Pee-wee Herman and the Spartan cheerleaders. Indeed, a sketch like Hugh M. Davidson's "El Viejo y el Mar," in which a stone-faced Latin actor performs a condensed version of Hemingway's classic in elemental Spanish, is SCTV-esque conceptual comedy that dares us not to laugh.
No chance we'll take that dare anytime soon. The Groundlings sketch formula remains as close to a guarantee of fun as you'll find in show business.
'The Groundlings 30th Anniversary Box Set'
Where: Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Hollywood
When: Vol. 1, 8 p.m. Fridays; Vol. 2, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays, indefinitely. Closed Saturday, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Contact: (323) 934-4747 or www.groundlings.com