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Groundlings' New Show a Bit of a Rough 'Ride'

Comedy review: The troupe's sketches have their funny moments but prove once again there's a premium on good writing.

June 08, 1998|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A zany musical salute to the state of Ohio gets the new summer show from the legendary L.A. comedy troupe the Groundlings off to a promising start. But "The Ride" gets a little bumpy after that, as the group's latest evening of sketch comedy has nearly as many throwaway bits as memorable ones.

The show debuted Friday night at the group's Melrose Avenue home and runs through Sept. 5, at 8 and 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. There's a hit-and-miss rhythm to this latest show that not even the Groundlings' strong cast can overcome, although the good news is that the skits keep coming--16 of them in all, not including several breaks for improv, the bread and butter of the Groundlings school.

The best skits of the evening include "Storytelling," in which two rednecks argue esoteric linguistic points while one tries to get through a story of how he shot his common-law wife; "Basketball Jones," in which a high school coach does a Bobby Knight tirade on his players at halftime of a game, only to learn that the school at which he's working is for the blind and mildly retarded; and "Eyewitness," in which an audience member is used for an interrogation scene that features Michael McDonald as an attorney whose padded costume makes Julia Sweeney's androgynous "Pat" character look positively svelte.

Given the Groundlings' exalted list of alumni--Paul Reubens, Laraine Newman, Jon Lovitz, Sweeney and Phil Hartman, whose recent death gave opening night a bittersweet tone--it's always fun to speculate who could be the current troupe's next breakout performers. Watch for Steven Cragg and McDonald, who have the kind of comedic versatility that has made the Groundlings a de facto farm system for "Saturday Night Live" (current "SNL" cast members Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer and Chris Kattan all did time with the Groundlings).

Cragg, who exhibits shades of Hartman's comedic Everyman, turned in a knockout impression of Carol Channing, while McDonald had the evening's most memorable character, a socially dysfunctional little boy who lies on the floor and petulantly uses his foot to keep the adults in his life at bay, brandishing his sneaker like a semi-automatic weapon.

*

But like the stuff of "SNL" '97, or Fox's "Mad TV," for that matter, too many of the sketches in "The Ride" exhaust their ironic point and peter out, rather than build to a surprising punch line. A skit called "Pro Choice," for instance, starts off well, as two gay men (Paul Jahn and Phil LaMarr) speak with witty ironic distance on how wonderful it is to have "chosen" to be gay. But the premise runs out of comedic gas halfway through. Similarly, a takeoff on the unintended consequences of the impotency drug Viagra has nowhere to go after the novelty of its sight gag wears off.

Ultimately, "The Ride" will convince you that the Groundlings lab is still a hotbed of improv and acting talent, but good writing is harder to find.

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