At Upright Citizens' Brigade Theater, a sketch show that's not a sketch show tries to make a sale
Real estate in New York City is a joke.
Most of us have settled, at some point, for tiny, dirty, scary, or just plain weird apartments, and when it hasn’t left us crying we’ve come to know there’s comedy in the whole game.
That seems to be the inspiration behind Brandon Scott Jones’ Upright Citizens Brigade performance, This Is Not A Sketch Show: A Sketch Show, the latest installment of which takes place tonight at the UCB Theater on West 26th Street. This theater is not to be confused with the new UCB East Theatre, which seems like the one-percenters version of UCB. And that matters: Apartment-hunting is the show’s subject, and it's the now very familiar basement performance space that Jones, who plays the part of too-enthusiastic broker Andy Stevens, is trying to sell the audience.
“It’s nice to give audiences a look at different types of comedy that can be presented live,” Jones said.
By "different," he's referring both to the show's interactive feel (something like Tony and Tina’s Wedding, minus the Italian stereotypes) as well as its unifying real-estate theme. Breaking the fourth wall in sketch is nothing new, but This Is Not A Sketch Show: A Sketch Show creates something unique with the theme and the particular space being used. The result is an elevation of the sketch show to a kind of metacritique of the comedy business: Jones isn't just doing a comedy show about real estate in the city, but selling audiences on the idea of owning a piece of the UCB Theater itself—now recognized as the birthplace for many breakout comedy stars.
The show is introduced with our realtor showing the stage/apartment to four people—one couple (played by Jon Gutierrez and Alison Bennett) who are rightfully worried about a living space that comes with an audience and is sure to rack up astronomical light bills; and another pair of more enthusiastic would-be tenants (the show's writers, Matt Moskovciak and Ben Stadler) who don’t seem to mind a dark living area with obstructive columns and zero privacy. In fact, they’re as excited as the audience seems to be about the show.
This Is Not A Sketch Show goes on to a series of (not) sketches that are performed for both the audience and the prospective tenants on stage. Jones, as the real-estate agent, is the glue that binds the show together, reminding us after each sketch just how valuable this theater/apartment is. Each sketch serves as a reminder of how much comedy bang for your buck you’re getting in this deal.
Though most of the sketches are free of costumes or sets, one more elaborate audio-visual sketch about a confession was probably one of the most entertaining bits, and a clever way to break up the half hour.
The audience watches as a diary entry is typed out on a screen projection, describing the tawdry details of an affair someone is having with another man’s wife. It turns out that the cuckold in this equation is actually sitting in the audience and seeing the details of his not-so-happy marriage unravel publicly. The husband/audience member/improviser runs off stage promising to kill his wife’s lover. The text onscreen stops for a few seconds before the husband returns to his seat in the audience. The typing recommences, explaining the altercation the confessor has just had with the husband. Once again filled with rage, the husband again runs off stage to finish off his wife’s lover, thus halting the text again. It's a very clever premise, as the hilarious crime of passion played out in real time.
Brandon Scott Jones and Timothy Dunn are definitely the most prominent standouts of the show, as evidenced by their performances in one particularly foul-mouthed sketch about Federal Express. Dunn plays a Good Samaritan who volunteers to pick up a stranger’s important phone call while she goes to the bathroom. A call comes in from a neurotic and type-A Fed-Ex employee (played by Jones) who wants to confirm a delivery time for the stranger Dunn is helping. Their conversation gets lost in translation when Dunn tries to patiently explain he’s doesn’t even know the woman while Jones believes he’s being mocked; it escalates to a frustrated curse-a-thon between the two.
The show culminates in a sketch where the realtor tells the audience and the prospective renters that the show has reached its end and the apartment/theater is no longer available. Upon hearing the news, Ben and Matt realize that the opportunity to rent the apartment was the best thing that's ever happened to them, rendering the rest of their lives meaningless. Despondent, they take desperate measures. Meanwhile the couple, Allison and Jon, follow suit upon realizing that they’ve waited too long to sign the lease and have lost out on the best apartment with obstructive columns that the city has to offer.
After all, this is the UCB Theater, where so many aspiring young New York comics get started on the careers of their dreams. The less-than-ideal surroundings are just part of the package.