"First call for passengers to Chicago; the flight has already left . . . Flight 197 has been canceled due to fog; we are absolutely heartbroken. . . ."
Have you heard this before? Not quite, but almost? That's the essence of El Tricicle's art in "Take Off!," a nimble bit of wacky comedy by three skilled artists from Spain that opened Tuesday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Everything in it is just close enough to the real thing, yet enough of a takeoff on reality to keep you doing double takes.
The name, too. El Tricicle turns out to be more than a gimmick. The three guys--Paco Mir, Joan (pronounced Zho-wan) Gracia and Carles Sans--work together like the wheels on a three-wheeler, each essential to the others. The comedy is seamless, funny, swift and bright.
In a loose-jointed collection of skits, Mir, Gracia and Sans play characters you're likely to encounter in an airport or on a plane, from every type of traveler you hope never to sit next to, down to janitors, baggage handlers, charwomen and stewardesses. (Mechanics and pilots are the only ones spared. Fear of retaliation?)
If this all sounds a bit predictable, it is not "Airplane!" The laughs are not yocks. They are much more subtle. These artists are trained mimes. This not only makes them a pleasure to watch (indeed, more in the area of physical skill--which they seem to possess in abundance yet barely tap here--would be welcome), but the skits have a certain conceptual wit and a cockeyed vision of the world that keep the show from sinking too deep into the mundane.
At least most of the time. Here and there "Take Off!" lapses into something you might catch on television, but for the most part the work is in the Red Skelton/Harold Lloyd/Buster Keaton class with Sid Caesar overtones.
It displays real imagination even when the situations are not that uncommon, such as the three French ladies flying to see the Pope, the baggage handler (Gracia) who can't manage four suitcases at once or the Lothario (Sans), who turns on his charms for the uncharmed ticket agent.
These guys are especially good at fast takes, things like the one-man press conference (Gracia plays all the parts), the fellow (Mir) with a suitcase on a leash that wets the floor, the anonymous "suitcase head" who crosses the stage. . . . But they are at their best in the occasional deeper, meticulous piece that shows off the full extent of their talent--something they seem to have only begun to explore.
Sans does a melancholy routine with a vacuum cleaner (as an earthbound charwoman who dreams of flight) that is reminiscent of Chaplin. Mir and Gracia open the show as a pair of janitors so devoutly dedicated to their task that they end up using one rag to clean off another. Exquisite stuff.
The last third of the show takes place aboard the aircraft and we'll let you savor those shenanigans for yourselves. Again, the invention is superior and matches the execution.
El Tricicle steers clear of political satire or anything remotely controversial (perhaps a function of their youth; Sans, the oldest, is only 31). They dwell exclusively on the familiar and the social dysfunction of our lives, but they do it with real talent, style and savvy.
Performances at 514 S. Spring St. runs tonight through Sunday only, 8 p.m., with a matinee Saturday at 2. Tickets: $20-$25; (213) 622-3771.