‘Yes, And’ explores the history of improv
Yes, And… directed by Jeff Quintana and expertly written and acted by Playwright Zack Myers is a quirky bit of work that questions the nature of improv comedy legends and how such legends came to be.
As part of this year’s Capital Fringe Festival, Yes, And…, is a play that goes behind the scenes of comedy legends like John Belushi and John Candy, and current notables like Tina Fey and Jon Favreau. As directed by Quintana, the show is part interactive, part improv lesson, all kinds of funny and at times heart-string pulling.
At curtain, we see a spare and lean set, consisting of a skull set atop a coffee table, and a plush, leather chair in front of a black curtain. On to this set, steps Myers as comedy improv pioneer Del P. Close, who is credited with creating long-form improvisational comedy, and working with troupes like Chicago’s Second City and Saturday Night Live and teaching the likes of Belushi and Favreau. Close (who played a corrupt city alderman in The Untouchables among other film roles) was famous for creating the improv game known as “The Harold,” which consists of monologues, scenes and games.
We see Close dressed in a black suit, white shirt and strangely, a black noose for a tie. Close paces around his apartment, knowing he is probably going to be fired by Second City (He was fired from Second City in the mid-60s). Close proceeds to read a suicide note to Mr. Skull, the skull on his coffee table: “Dear World, I don’t matter anymore. Nobody listens anymore…” and so on.
When the fateful phone call comes from Second City, Close yells into the receiver “I know I have a drug problem; who doesn’t!”
Close vacillates over the decision to kill himself though drinking a cup of jewelry cleaner (a method of self-harm he has first-hand knowledge of). “I can’t even kill myself right…I have a nagging desire to live,” he complains.
The problem for Close is that he sees improv as “an art form, in spite of itself”, but troupes like Second City see improv as a tool to create comedy sketches. Just as we see this conflict building, Close breaks the fourth wall and turns the show into a lecture; we learn that improv consists of justification (i.e. performers should take the attitude of “yes, and…”), performers should always take the active choice, and performers should justify everything they do on stage.
Indifference, Close warns, is fatal. It is indifference that proves to be the demon that tortures Close as we learn that as he was growing up in Manhattan, Kansas, Close’s father proved indifferent to his son. Close’s father, we learn, had his own dangerous relationship with jewelry cleaner.
Close from there shows us a full-blown, John Belushi\Robin Williams-style display of improv madness. We see a mock commercial for “Grow-A-Dad”—take the product out of the box and just add water. Then we are invited to come on down to Crazy Del’s where you can choose many creative ways to kill yourself, including Crazy Del’s “Wham Bam, Thank You Ma’am” option, or even the BOGO (buy one, get one free) suicide special. “Find us at the corner of Worthless and Sad, Manhattan…Kansas!”
Though all this madness, Close has an epiphany; he can create his own theater with his own rules: “We can create art by committee!”
Though the show produced strong emotional beats, especially when Close touched on his relationship with his father, and Myers was fantastic throughout, the ending failed to tie all the craziness together and give me a stronger sense of why he chose life over death and more of what specifically made Close go his own way rather than work within the paradigm of improv-as-comedy-sketch-maker. Because it lacked a fleshed out denouement, there was a degree of detail missing as to the end of Close’s story arc in the show, and a sense of where he was going after curtain.
Overall, Yes, And… is a great homage to the art of improvisational comedy and their practitioners, and an excellent introduction to that craft. Myers will give you his all—be sure to say “yes” to Yes, And…
Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.