I can tell you almost nothing about the content you would see if you went to We Know How You Die at Woolly Mammoth, anymore than I could tell you how you’re going to die.
I could say that when I saw it I witnessed a tiki party full of sexually aggressive ladies, a support group where dads share dumb Dad sayings, and a nuclear engineer being eaten alive by a cowconut, that is, a monstrous beast created by the genetic combination of a cow and a coconut.
That would be factual, but you won’t get to see those things. They’re done, passed, never to be performed again. But what you will see is a crew of top-notch comedians whipping together an off-the-cuff hilarity orgy while playing The Grim to a volunteer audience member.
We Know How You Die is one of Woolly Mammoth’s visiting productions this summer, bringing in Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB), alma mater to the now famously funny faces of Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, Matt Walsh and many others. The other is Mike Daisey’s latest: Trump Card. UCB is a New York City sketch and improvisational comedy crew, who are taking a skosh from Column A and all of Column B for their newest show.
Here’s the setup: the first part of the show is a selection process and an interview, extracting information from volunteer audience members who say that they want to know how they die. Once the cast has narrowed the selection down to a few people, they consult with The Oracle (which is just a stolen Internet gif) and pick one audience member as their primary victim, I mean, collaborator. That person gets grilled publicly and deeply by Shannon O’Neill, who shines throughout. When the interview is over, the real show begins.
For the next half hour to forty five minutes, castmates O’Neill, Connor Ratliff, Brandon Scott Jones, and Molly Thomas riff on the information gleaned in this interview, staging scenes of the interviewee’s life from childhood to present day to their future death. But they aren’t out to play Ralph Edwards here. In the show I saw, every event was interpreted with the maximum amount of zaniness, in perfect pitch with anyone’s expectations of improv comedy.
We Know How You Die
closes July 31, 2016
Details and tickets
The real question isn’t “Was the improv show funny when I saw it?” but “Will the improv show be funny when you see it?” There are so many variables that can affect an improv show night-to-night, both bad and good: a particularly unpliable audience, a mark (volunteer) who helps the show by dishing juicy personal info, or a single cast member whose off night can be that horseshoe for which the kingdom of the show is lost.
But there are techniques and indicators that transcend these variables, and the UCB cast shows proficiency and sometimes excellence in most of them. They have a strong sense of when to end scenes, waiting for a punchline to stop the action, but usually not letting scenes go on too long. Thomas has a strong sense of when the latter is happening and looks to be the shows “hangman:” the person assigned to killing bits when they start going downhill. The fact that she has that job is far from a bad sign; it means these actors have respect for the form and its pitfalls.
What they’re really exceptional at is generating “offers,” introducing new ideas into scenes in rapid succession, though they’re only okay at accepting those offers with full gusto. For example, in the tiki swingers party, Jones (playing the woman who set up the volunteer and his fiance) introduced the idea that the buffet contained the cinnamon challenge. When some of his castmates tried it and failed to produce an active reaction (a re-offer), Jones immediately suggested that the cinnamon is actually roofies. That kind of snap thinking keeps improv moving, no matter what the actual content is, and so it is a great sign that this group will continue to generate guffaws.
The structured, death methodology prediction format, comprising the vast majority of the night, is wildly successful. It’s loose enough to give the cast plenty to riff on but focused enough that the bits feel interrelated and called back on. We Know How You Die may even join ASSSSCAT! as a preferred format for UCB. But even with the lengthy interview and a vigorous plumbing of its material, the show has a short second act to make it the requisite “I got my money’s worth” 90 minutes.
It’s just a regular improv game, riffing off a piece of advice to an audience member when they were younger, but with the twist of being able to refer back to gags in the first act. It’s fun, to be sure, and it shows off this cast’s chops in a more traditional improvisational setting (Ratliff excels particularly here). But the structure was an obvious anchor for them, and their performance feels at sea without it. The second act is much looser than the first, feeling less like a unique, top class take on improv and more like your average, though professional, Friday night improv jam. Give me an extra couple of scenes in the first act, and maybe I’d be more satisfied with a shorter night. I might have felt differently if the interviewee was less interesting and been glad for the safety valve.
We Know How You Die deserves big props in general, from the high and unusually even quality of the actors to the flexible yet well-structured premise. The technique behind the show’s improv is sound and gives every indication that their funniness is no fluke. Most importantly, We Know How You Die has the most important characteristic of improvisational theater: rewatchability. So, if you plan on seeing We Know How You Die (and you should see it), my only question is: do you have room for one more?
We Know How You Die by The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. Featuring Shannon O’Neill, Brandon Scott Jones, Connor Ratliff, and Molly Thomas. Set Design: Scott Little . Lighting Design: Aaron Waxman . Stage Manager: Cody Whitfield . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Alan Katz.