To put on a fresh show every night, Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) must know its audience down to the core of their prides and insecurities. The New York- and Los Angeles-based improv comedy troupe, co-founded by Amy Poehler, read D.C. like a book on press night.
Audiences will remember UCB’s formula from their 2016 show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, We Know How You Die. Their 2018 show, Damned If You Do, starts with an introduction to the theme: music from the sci-fi film Annihilation plays and green light washes over two opposing white doors with a black expanse in between as cast members slink up from the audience whispering “future!” Then they preview the form of the show: the troupe will conduct an extended, on-stage interview of one featured audience volunteer to uncover the tensions in their life and relationships, then use that material to immediately create a one-night-only show.
On press night, the vying volunteers ran the gamut of D.C. experiences: a public affairs official with a dog named POTUS, a corset maker/corporate event designer with an overly supportive publicist friend, a fresh college graduate who used LinkedIn to land a job at a media analysis organization, and a domestic violence intake professional/homeless shelter support staffer who had recently re-evaluated her sexuality.
The jokes that UCB spun from snippets of these four lives also wove in audience reactions to the interviews. For example, when the audience became over-excited and started “woo!”-ing and snapping in support of every little interview detail, the performers captured the quirk by inserting holier-than-thou snapping wokeness into scenes.
The part of the evening that made me laugh until I cried drew from a spontaneous audience “boo!”-ing of the recent college grad’s tender age; UCB used this embarrassing audience moment to imagine two parents who explode in uncontrollable rage every time their child shares a new accomplishment, from earning a high school diploma to finding a girlfriend to winning multiple gift cards for a restaurant. Reading the room, UCB also incorporated “POTUS the dog” insults aimed at Donald Trump, and multiple times broke through the pretentious ambiguity of D.C. job titles; in one scene, a character protesting being fired says they will leave willingly if the HR manager can articulate what the organization actually does; in another, UCB brings in mile-long CVS receipts, elementary school dioramas, and Snapple caps to be examined on the floor of a conference room in a media analysis organization.
Just as UCB pays sharp attention to what is said by everyone in the audience, they excel at taking note of what the volunteers leave unsaid. When the featured volunteer of the night reveals that her partner is a nonbinary Muslim person, UCB uses the correct pronouns to refer to them, and transports that character to a drunk nudist beach without once making fun of the character’s identity. Additionally, when the interviewee expresses reluctance to name flaws in any of her friends or coworkers, UCB weaves a thread of duality into many scenes: everybody, no matter how nice they seem, has a dark secret.
Damned If You Do
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
This sensitivity comes from two places: first, Upright Citizens Brigade’s tenets of active listening to inform long-form improvisational comedy, which they play at the top of their intelligence; second, that all four performers on press night were women. To see four women wield uninterrupted control over the narrative and share the stage respectfully feels like a revolutionary act in 2018. This equality is fostered by returning performer Shannon O’Neill, the thorough interview leader who usually steps back from initiating scenes, performs the best “yes and” assists, and never announces her role as the artistic director of The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. Although O’Neill sports an impressive comedic resume, including The Chris Gethard Show, Broad City, Difficult People, and High Maintenance, she serves her fellow performers here as the heart and backbone of Damned If You Do.
O’Neill’s great talent makes way for the cast to shine, especially Alex Dickson, an actor and improviser veteran of Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and College Humor. As a principled postal worker who gives a wedding speech about the morphing style of the bride’s junk mail pile; an overly competitive tag player, a victim of demonic possession, and a parent who can’t help but heckle her child, Dickson loses herself in characters most fully. Her versatility and masterful control of her physicality allows her to play any age, gender, or demeanor with complete and immediate believability.
Although the scenes transition seamlessly without visible cues, the performers stumble over the rules of reality within each scene. For example, when a corset seller approaches two characters on the nude beach to hawk their wares, the cast does not immediately agree on the price of a corset, and relies instead on audience input; when a reluctant babysitter tells the kids that if they do not use “inside voices,” they will be sent to the basement, and the kids turn the tides on the babysitter, she initially refuses to accept their logic; and when three office workers ask their newly revealed stripper coworker to put on the show for them, she says she will only do so if they sing Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” The struggle of neither party willing to accede results in awkwardness for everyone.
The premise of the show, to play out two alternate futures with a bonus act after intermission, does not quite hold up. Rather than two narrative “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” darkest timelines, the show feels more like a jumbled collection of scenes extrapolated from real experiences, with several set and audio malfunctions.
Despite the successes and pitfalls of any one show, UCB demonstrates incredible ingenuity and resilience in pushing through hiccups and raising each other up to finish every scene with a satisfying punchline. To spend an evening marveling at ephemeral art born of courage, cooperation, and communal effort will, given the chance, restore this partisan city’s optimism for a brighter future.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company presents Damned If You Do by The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre . Cast: Alex Dickson, Monique Moses, Shannon O’Neill, Connor Ratliff, Molly Thomas.