Remembrance of Old Dinners

In the summer of 2000, Fuzzy Gerdes and Megan Pedersen asked me to for a list of shows that I might like to direct for the Playground. They were beginning something called the Directors Series for the co-op theater and this would be the first show they would produce. Out of a list of ten, they chose the only show I had done before… Dinner for Six.

The first run, at iO, had the audience choose fortune cookies and then the fortunes would "predict" what would happen to each couple.

Dinner for Six is one of my favorite all-time shows. The premise is simple; three couples have a dinner, we (and the improvisers) discover the connections and emotional strands between them and then they improvise. No other characters, no walk-ons, no tag-outs, just a mix of relationship scenes. It was, I recall, a direct reaction to the wave (at the time) of chaotic, almost nihilistic improvisation.

I’ll probably write more about this show, but for now here are some of the reviews we got for that run at the Playground, including one from the Daily Herald, the longest and nicest review I’ve ever received. (special thanks to Megan Pedersen who archived these reviews.)


From New City, by Ben Winters (#3 on “5 Shows to See Now”)dinner for six

Much long-form improvisation founders on the rocks of pointlessness, that barren territory where a lack of raison d’etre tranlates speedily into an absence of punchlines. Not so with “Dinner for Six,” director Jason Chin’s charming creation at the Playground, the first offering in that theater’s promising “director’s series.” Though by no menas without the stutter-steps and meanderings found in most long-form shows, “Dinner” works better than most, because it takes a specific territory- romantic relationships within a small group of friends – and moves within it on various levels. Each of three boy-girl pairings is defined (the mode of audience suggestion is fortune-cookie fortunes collected in a pot before the show), the dynamic of each is explored while the plot moves (somewhat slowly) forward, and some manner of resolution is achieved. The cast is strong, or at least has been led to make wise choices, steering clear of dull guy-are-like-this, gals-are-like-this schtick; dynamic Nicky Margolis landed the best lines at the performance I attended, but all seem a good fit for Chin’s clever experiment.

From the Daily Herald, by Jack Helbigdinner for six

Mini-review: What a joy to watch a young, hip, smart improv troupe play the deeper notes

Improv has been so closely associated with comedy for so long – at least since the founding of Second City in 1959 – that it is easy to forget there is more to the discipline than just cracking jokes. People who do improv on a regular basis know this. The best improv scenes happen when the performers on stage forget about getting laughs and focus instead on building relationships or the scene at hand. Still, audiences by and large go to improv to laugh and even the best improvisers can’t help but give into the universal demand: “Make me laugh, funnyman!”

Which is why it is great that within Chicago’s feverish improv scene performers get together from time to time to experiment with using improv to create something other than the usual sit-com fare. These admittedly riskier shows, usually scheduled at less than optimal times or in one of Chicago’s smaller, more Spartan theaters, allow performers to take risks, emotional, artistic, and comedic risks, they would never take in a prime time venue full of entertainment-hungry citizens.

“Dinner for Six” is such a show. Directed by Jason R. Chin of the ImprovOlympic and starring an ensemble of young, hip, smart performers, “Dinner for Six” is best described as an attempt to create an hour-long, fully improvised play. Lots of people have attempted this in recent years. A full-length play is, after all, the logical next step after the much vaunted “long-form” improvisation (in which actors improvise for 30 minutes or more based on a single suggestion). But successful, fully improvised plays are as rare as Buffalo nickels these days.

Most improvised shows either fall into mere anarchy or one or two very strong performers dominate the whole thing. Jason Chin and company, however, have hit upon a great way to focus the show: from the get-go they know the six actors will be playing three couples, and that these three couples are somehow tangled in each others lives. Put more simply, Chin et al. agree from the start that what they create will have a kind of soap opera-ish quality about it.

The other thing they do is begin every show the same way, with a dinner party, at which each performer reveals his or her issues – those nagging problems in life that add spice to theater. This ritual is very entertaining. It also allows the performers to do the basic background work that gives depth to characters.

The night I saw the show, this scene worked like a charm. In a few short minutes we felt we knew these people intimately and cared about the petty slings and arrows that were bedeviling their lives. That show featured a bohemian couple trying to deal with issues of career and money (or lack thereof); a corporate couple beginning to crack under the pressures of corporate life; and a third, well-off couple ready to chuck it all for a vacation from life.

To their credit, the performers in the show took their time to develop their characters. It was fascinating watching these six working out their various foibles and ticks. In an instant Julia Wolfe, for example, established that she was the lovable, wise, but (potentially) long suffering earth mother, doomed to always play the nurturing role in relationship. Likewise, with just a flash of her eyes and a change in her body language, Nicky Margolis showed us her character was one of those cold, driven, corporate narcissists, who live for their careers – and nothing else. (Disclosure: Margolis is one of my classmates at Second City, where I am currently working out a mid-life crisis learning improv. From the first class it was clear this young actress is bursting with talent, but nothing in class prepared me for the many-leveled, fine grained performance she delivered here.)

And she was not alone. Everyone in this show was working at a level that joke-obsessed improvisers rarely achieve. And here is the irony: they were hilarious. But not in that look-at-me-I-made-a-funny way that people like Michael Myers have perfected. But in a subtler, more sophisticated manner. They earned our laughter by creating compelling, believable people, and putting them in identifiable predicaments.

Wolfe and Justin O’Conner, for example, found themselves wandering through the troubles many creative couples face. O’Conner, a young, callow man in his twenties, cannot decide what he wants to be when he grows up – if he grows up. Wolfe, clearly attracted to O’Conner because he is artistic – he is, it turns out, a talented painter – is torn between her need for a somewhat stable, coherent home life and her need to nurture and support O’Conner. The scenes between these two as they fumble blindly along, trying to solve these issues, are pure gold. Wolfe, in particular, is a strong, sensitive, intelligent performer, able to make any moment on stage feel like the moment. O’Conner holds his own, however, playing the lost boy who suddenly realizes he’s not a kid anymore.

It is unfair to single out these two, however, because all three couples had their marvelous moments. Margolis and Jeff Griggs delightfully danced that all-too-familiar working couples waltz, “My Career’s Great, Yours is Dying on the Vine.” And Mary Jo Bolduc and Chris Gelbach were very fine as the most stable of the three couples, the ones everyone leans on, but also the two everyone secretly resents, because they have got it all together and know it.

I could have spent hours watching these six spin theater out of thin air. As it is, the show only runs about 60 minutes, long enough to entertain, but short enough to leave us wanting more. I’m planning to go back. Maybe I’ll see you there.

From, by Fred Mowrey dinner for six

In their first Director’s Series show, the Playground scores with “Dinner for Six.” The fully improvised show features a look into the lives of three seperate couples, who begin the show by meeting together for dinner and proceed to share the fortunes they discover within their fortune cookies. Playing the same characters throughout the entire show, the actors here bring depth and realism rarely seen in more traditional improvised shows. In between the laughter (and there is plenty here), issues of impotence, economic stress and the breakdown of a marriage can suddenly become a focal point of a scene. Its this realism that really makes this show special. Definitely worth checking out.

Editor’s Pick on Digital Citydinner for six

Fortune cookies collected from the audience provides the basis for this long-form improv piece, the first in the Playground’s new Director’s Series.

Each show is a 60-minute romantic comedy beginning at a group dinner where three men and three women playing couples explore the nuances of their relationships. Reviews have been strong. New City calls it a “charming creation” and the Daily Herald calls it “… a joy to watch…”


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