"Whirled News Tonight" ***
Absurd and often just plain depressing, the news on any given day is always ripe for a send-up. Jon Stewart knows it. The Onion knows it. And the long-running improvised show "Whirled News Tonight" knows it.
Coming up on its eighth year next month, the show (created and directed by Jason Chin for the comedy hub iO Theater in Wrigleyville) invites audiences to wander on stage beforehand and shuffle through a stack of newspapers in search of articles worthy of placement on two billboards that hang along the back wall. The cast, dressed in anchor-wear, then randomly select a handful of those as inspiration for fully improvised scenes. The news is real, we're informed; everything else is improvised.
About 40 minutes in, the cast changes into street clothes and switches tactics, soliciting from the audience advice column-type questions ("Why do women hate men's fashion sense?" and "Should I join the Peace Corps?" at a recent performance) that the ensemble then answers through improv.
These are clever set-ups that establish just enough boundaries that even when the performances or ideas don't quite hit, the show never drowns in that aimless quality often associated with anything but the strongest long-form improv shows. Here, the scenes are kept short — often shorter than you'd expect — and discarded. It works amazingly well.
Aside from the gimmicks, the show's real strength is the chemistry within the ensemble. This a large cast of eight, but the stage never feels crowded. Matt Young is a standout, the kind of quick-thinking performer who can deliver an innocuous line, then elevate it a split second later to double entendre status with just a wink and a finger gun.
Brooke Bagnall, Megan O'Neill and Marla Caceres are especially strong but everyone is good here. There is an easy flow within the group, and they have a collectively sharp instinct about when it's time to move on to a new scene, which is rare skill indeed in the world of improv.
Open run 8 p.m. Saturdays at iO Chicago, 3541 N. Clark St.; $14 at 773-880-0199 or ioimprov.com
"Strangers & Romance" *
It's true that you can never feel more alone than when you're in a relationship, a concept explored by Barbara Lhota in this pair of one-acts staged by Strangeloop Theatre. Lhota is a longtime Chicago playwright whose work has seen its fair share of productions, but she is largely an uknown quantity to the majority of audiences — a state of affairs unlikely to change based on this production.
Among her most frequently produced plays, "Strangers" and "Romance" have an anachronistic quality, more along the lines of middlebrow throwbacks from the early '60s than works penned within the last decade. "Strangers" centers on a married couple role-playing a seduction in order to avoid talking about their real problems; "Romance" (the far stronger effort here, thanks the nuanced choices of Stacie Barra) involves a pair who meet late one night in a church, fleeing from their own failed relationships. The narratives are schematic, and coupled with the mannered style of acting favored by Doug Long's production, neither ever quite lands in an honest spot.
Through Sept. 18 at Trap Door Theater, 1655 N. Cortland Ave.; $15 at 773-757-6689 or strangelooptheatre.org