Improv is traditionally a comedic practice, but there is no rule that says it can’t be used to explore dramatic tension and emotional topics. That’s exactly what the Dark Day Players, a group founded by Dangerbox improviser Jason Boxer and Hammerkatz comedian Duncan Gregory, and that consists entirely of NYU students, do around New York. They have no permanent location; instead they perform on industry-mandated dark days in theaters, which is when they are not housing any other productions. They go into the theater and create a 90-minute, completely improvised original show that is simply titled “Play.”
It may seem a little silly to review a show that was conceived on the spot one evening and will never be performed again, but the experience offered last week proves the Dark Day Players are capable of creating an important, entertaining play with heart and surprising sentiment without any planning.
On Sept. 28, the Dark Day Players took over the set of Shakespeare in the Square’s current run of “Richard II” at the Robert Moss Theater. This performance of “Play” began with a simple monologue about a woman’s childhood memories of camping with her now deceased father. In the next scene, she discusses a beach getaway with her husband and then reluctantly agrees to bring his friend Jim along. Roadtrip hijinks ensue and Jim drives a wedge between the woman and her husband. Eventually she leaves them and goes to visit her mother where new information is revealed about her parents’ marriage, including a long-term extramarital affair.
The actors are all talented improvisers, able to deliver sharp, witty dialogue at a fast pace out of thin air. In fact, the show was so tightly knit that there were very few indications that it was made up on the spot. There were a few mistakes, including Jim’s profession changing from a waiter to a librarian, but a clever line of dialogue saying he was fired from both easily corrected this. The show was as close to perfect as it could have been, with elements like a running joke involving fish, baseball tickets that become a Chekhov’s gun and a character only mentioned offhandedly that becomes an important plot element. Clearly, the members of the troupe are experienced in how a satisfying play should function and are able to create the humorous plot necessary to keep the audience invested.
What really distinguished this production from a weekday improv show at Upright Citizens Brigade were the emotional and dramatic aspects that take over in the second half. When the story shifts from hilarious road comedy to the melancholy visit of the protagonist to her mother in mourning, a poignant meditation on loss, confession and guilt comes out. While the actors are gifted and hilarious, they also are invested in creating real emotional impact from these improvised productions.
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