With a subject as hoary as “the folly of war,” you might think it a cakewalk for the Planet Ant Improv Colony to squeeze something fresh and funny and relevant from it. In their latest comedy show, a sketch revue titled Detour of Duty, performances poke fun at war re-enactors, an armless and legless veteran itching to get back to the front and an ultra-patriotic hillbilly with an American flag so enormous it slows the rotation of the Earth as it flaps in his front yard. Peripherally, there are a couple of bits on our commander in chief’s struggle with the English language and a pitch from the military extolling the quintessentially “American” reasons why someone would sign up, namely to lose weight and get a hot bod.
A cakewalk, right? Well, though the skits are acted out with loud and boisterous energy, the humor is too well-worn, eliciting only the politest of laughs. Anyone expecting a razor-sharp, original satire on par with Dr. Strangelove or Catch 22 or even “Saturday Night Live” will skulk away disappointed. However, this is no reason to neglect seeing the show. The best material in the production has nothing to do with any ripped-from-the-headlines topicality. The six performers are at their best when they’re not exacting too-easy impersonations of gung-ho, kill-’em-all, America-love-it-or-leave-it stereotypes, but playing the lunatics that populate the more original, and much funnier, skits throughout the show.
There is another reason to see the show. Whereas the majority of the performers range from truly talented to passably mediocre, there is one individual who transcends the hit-and-miss material and somewhat blah staging, transfixing the audience with his evil-dad/game-show-host persona. That would be David Herbst, a veteran in the improv community who did a stint at Second City in Detroit. Whether he’s playing a father who just happens to man his own space program or a foppish Lord Fauntleroy prancing in mad excitement over the prospects of his mummy finding a suitor, Herbst has the chops to carry the weaker pieces and wring a few laughs from them. His timing and voice-work are impeccable, and you’ll be drawn to his characters even when there isn’t much else to grab onto. If nothing else, Detour of Duty is an invitation to watch someone who just may be in your local cineplex or on your television someday.
So, besides war and Bush and hillbillies, what else does this show offer? Well, there’s a fairly amusing look at a meeting of city bureaucrats trying to come up with ideas to improve the city before the Super Bowl gets here. Their hunger and boredom and quick-fix state of mind aptly lampoons a city bureaucracy and mayor who often seem like they’re in a comedy show.
In a sweetly funny piece, an elderly couple gets together for a bingo; the skit speaks to the truths of infirmity, memory loss and bygone love. In another, a funeral service is hosted by a retired game-show host (Herbst) whose quizzing of mourning family members leads to chaos and profane shouting matches.
Other skits home in on families of divorcees and menstruation. Pete Jacokes, appearing in the menstruation piece, has a great time as a gynecologist equally thrilled and terrified that a woman he met “speed-dating” has shown up unwittingly as a patient. The best writing of the show is on display in the perpetually foot-in-mouth indulgences of the horny doctor.
If the producers could have come up with a different name for it, Detour of Duty would not have been burdened with expectations that it was going to hit the mark with anti-war tinged humor. But the show makes up for it with a rat-a-tat-tat assault of other themes that work just fine.
A bit of a theatrical bait-and-switch, but like the old chestnut properly states: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.”
Detour of Duty runs though Aug. 29., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets $10-$15. Call 313-365-4948 for reservations.Dan DeMaggio writes about film, theater and all sorts of cool stuff for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]