Review: ‘Off the Top’ at The Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse

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Who would have thought that a fact-filled illustrated lecture on neuroscience could form the basis of a popular and critically-acclaimed Fringe show? Or that rap music could hold appeal for intellectuals? Off the Top, created and performed by real-life married couple Baba Brinkman (the rapper) and Dr. Heather Berlin (the neuroscientist and professor), provides proof positive that opposites not only attract, but can also formulate a fully engaging equation of entertainment and elucidation. 

Dr. Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman. Photo by Julian Cortes.

Dr. Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman. Photo by Julian Cortes.

A hit in the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, the unlikely pair investigates, through the media of rap music and stand-up comedy, the impulses of improvisation and creativity in the human brain. Reviewing the latest scientific research on the subject, Berlin delivers her brainy material in the format of a PowerPoint presentation combined with live experimentation and audience participation, interspersed with Brinkman’s spot-on topical rapping, good-natured kidding and loving repartee between the two, and amusing anecdotes about the history and current state of their relationship (they just welcomed their second child less than two months ago, and we can all rest assured that their offspring are the recipients of some very good genes).

Dr. Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman in a promo image for Off the Top. Photo by Patrick Lam.

Dr. Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman in a promo image for Off the Top. Photo by Patrick Lam.

Though much of the show is scripted and not “off the top,” the couple’s animated delivery brings a feeling of spontaneity to the memorized sections, which is in tune with their witty ad libs, segments of freestyle rap, and impromptu responses in a Q & A session near the end of the performance. Among the most revealing and humorous portions of the evening are the live testing of Brinkman (his wife’s “lab rat”) and a random volunteer from the audience to expose the difficulty of multi-tasking by assessing their cognitive skills, motor skills, and memory, while rapping (and in the case of Brinkman, also juggling). Of course the unrehearsed bit with an audience member changes with each and every show, but the opening-night crowd hit the jackpot when impressive young original rapper Aaron Strauss took the stage and held his own against the statistics-based expectations of Berlin and the seasoned “hyper-intellectual rap” of Brinkman. The art and science of free-association doesn’t get much better than it did with this masterful trio!

Adding to the enjoyment of Off the Top is a hilarious routine by guest comedian Myq Kaplan. His razor-sharp wit and split-second reactions display the connections between the flow states of rap (as Eminem so succinctly described it in “Lose Yourself”—“in the music, the moment, you own it”) and improv comedy, and serve as a jumping-off point for Berlin’s observations on the two-stage process, and gender-based differences, of experiencing humor. The show concludes with Brinkman and Berlin each offering an individual “rap up” that cleverly summarizes the captivating contents of the show to a synthesized post-modern beat.

Despite their disparate specializations, it turns out that “odd-couple” Brinkman and Berlin are not really all that different from each other. They’re both irresistibly charming, enthusiastic, funny, and talented, and smart enough to have figured out a way to integrate their personal lives and professional careers into one terrific show with Off the Top.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Photo by Patrick Lam.

Off the Top plays through Wednesday, February 22, 2017, performing at the Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse – 15 Vandam Street, NYC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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