A few weeks back, I finally got around to reading Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I watched the PBS miniseries years ago, long before moving to San Francisco, but I was overdue for reading the book itself.
In short, I recommend it. First of all, you can finish the thing in a matter of hours, so we're not talking about a major time commitment. Plus it's breezy, sexy, good-natured trash. But more than anything, it's an especially well-stocked time capsule from late-'70s San Francisco, documenting the long-gone hangouts once haunted by the city's oversexed residents. (Some things haven't changed, of course: Apparently the Marina Safeway has always been a choice pickup joint for heteros on the prowl.)
Anyway, reading Maupin put me in a mood for all things '70s in San Francisco, and that's around the time I caught wind of Futurestyle 79. The new improv show from Confused Parade Productions is set in a local magazine office during the last few months of the '70s. Maybe I was fascinated by the idea of improvisation as a form of nostalgia. Or maybe I just wanted to see a troupe of actors deliver off-the-cuff jokes about Jonestown and Pet Rocks.
I should begin with the usual caveat about reviewing improv shows. All theater is a lightning-in-a-bottle experience, with performances varying in quality from one night to the next. Improv is, of course, an extreme version of that. There's virtually no guarantee of consistency, which is part of the point and part of the attraction. When improv works, it can generate a kind of giddy joy for both actors and audience; everyone is visibly relieved that the risk paid off. But when it's bad, the tension can be enormous. I've emerged from more than one mediocre improv show in serious need of a massage.
When I saw Futurestyle in late September, the opening act was an Oakland improv troupe called Awkward Face. The name proved distressingly apt. The four troupe members began by asking the audience to name their favorite historical periods; after a number of suggestions, Prohibition emerged as the winner. The members of Awkward Face then proceeded to create a 40-minute series of sketches set during that period.
With improv like this, the toughest part isn't being funny. The toughest part is creating little narrative arcs in order to provide context for the jokes. Otherwise the banter never gains momentum; instead, it lurches from one lull to the next. Awkward Face had a few fine moments of inspiration, but the troupe seemed unfocused, and its act was at least 15 or 20 minutes too long. By the end, I could feel the knots forming near my shoulderblades. My face was frozen in discomfort. I either needed a good laugh or a major rubdown.
Thank God for the main event. The audience doesn't get a chance to vote on the time period for Futurestyle 79 — both the setting and the characters are already established. We're introduced to the magazine's editor, Tom Collins (Barry J. Weir Jr.), and his uptight assistant editor, Iris Robinson (Mia Blankensop). We meet the staff writers, including the star columnist (Diana Brown) and foppish fashion editor Bunny Van der Meer (Greg Shilling). Writer Marcus Sams (Jeb Wilkerson) spends the entire show in a corduroy suit and roller skates, while Gradey Faders (Daniel Sullivan) thinks of himself as quite the lothario, and British admin Duchess Greene (Keara McCarthy) seems to have wandered in from an episode of Ab Fab. In other words, this is improv with an unusual amount of structure; the only thing that changes each night is the story.
On the night I attended, the story totally worked. Iris decided to throw a fondue party at her apartment, prompting Bunny to plan a rival party celebrating the third anniversary of the Bicentennial. The troupe's eight performers used this premise as a springboard for a number of very funny riffs. When, for instance, Iris called Bunny "a piñata full of lies," that prompted an extended exchange about piñatas, capped by Gradey's matchless explanation of the piñata concept — namely, "the ancient South American practice of beating animals until candy comes out." Everyone in the troupe managed to have a good moment, with McCarthy having more good moments than most. She's awfully skilled at delivering a withering rebuke, and I wouldn't mind seeing an entire show focused on her gleefully bitchy character.
My only real disappointment is that Futurestyle 79 pays more attention to the '70s in general than to San Francisco in particular. Granted, maybe I watched it on the wrong night. But if you're setting an improv show during the city's mythic heyday, it seems a shame to limit yourself to jokes about Star Wars, Betamax, and fondue.
The show ends with a sly look to the future. "The printed word is never going to go out of style," Iris told our audience, prompting a weary laugh from some of us. No theatrical format is more ephemeral than improv, so it's only fitting that an improv troupe should joke about the ephemera of the past. Maybe that's why I walked out of the theater a little more melancholic than I came in — it never occurred to me that improv could double as elegy.