Winning Dirty

The deep pleasures in the sketch show Winning Dirty come from character comedy and the way that the members of the Frank Mills troupe are old-school comedians

Arts Review

Winning Dirty

Blue Theater, through May 20. Running time: 1 hr, 30 min

The great Ed Wynn is credited with drawing the line between the comedian and the comic, a comic being one who says funny things, while "a comedian is one who says things funny." It's a useful distinction in talking about the Frank Mills, one of the legion of troupes in Austin's burgeoning improv/sketch-comedy scene. This likable foursome falls squarely in the camp to which Wynn himself belonged: the folks who say things funny. For while its members are certainly capable of saying funny things, the deep pleasures in their sketch show Winning Dirty come from character, from the people they portray and how they move, speak, act, and react to one another or to the curious circumstances in which they find themselves.

Like the two dudes at the Van Halen concert, one of whom has a bit of a short fuse. In him, Erika May creates a full-fledged scrapper, a feisty little bantam rooster of a guy who will launch into a fury at the slightest provocation, chest puffed out, dukes up and at the ready. As his mellower companion, Bob McNichol expresses a sort of slack dismay at his bud's explosions of temper and does his best to counsel him to "overcome his personal hurdles." These two figures don't need punch lines; the way they're embodied by the two performers is all that's needed to elicit our laughter – and keep us watching, to see what they'll say or do next. The same is true for McNichol's hapless film teacher, whose clueless students have seized on the idea of making a snuff film for their class project. His restrained horror and polite yet woefully ineffectual attempts to interest them in more innocuous material – "Silent film!" – turn what could have been a scene too creepy for comfort into a hilarious expression of comedic distress. (And as icing on the cake, it's capped by a screening of the class' film, which improbably blends the interests of students and teacher in a way that manages to be quite funny and even rather charming.) Then there are the two American diplomats sent to work out political deals with a Vladimir Putin – McNichol again – whose favor can be curried only by playing kiddie games. And Dave Buckman's exasperated airline traveler forced to wait at the gate while passengers of every age, faith, political affiliation, and social classification – jocks, dorks, band geeks! – are called to board before he is. And Rachel Madorksy's young woman who decides crucial questions in her life by consulting – what else? – her vagina.

In fact, just about all the characters in the 20 or so scenes here display a similar grounding in situation and personality, with May, McNichol, Madorsky, and Buckman demonstrating a real facility for inhabiting different individuals – and doing so with a nonchalance that allows the comedy to rise from the scene as easily as if carried on a breeze. It's light and unforced, refreshing qualities in an era when so much comedy is aggressive and determined to push what few boundaries of taste may be left in our culture. With the comedy being so low-key and character-centered – not to mention cleaner than your average episode of Saturday Night Live or MADtv – the show sometimes feels like a throwback to the era of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and the original Second City. That's a treat to see in this day and age – there's something uniquely satisfying about that brand of humor – but particularly in Austin, which doesn't have a strong tradition of character comedy.

Winning Dirty still boasts a few rough edges. Entertaining musical numbers, like the one about the destitute family that sees salvation in starting a meth lab, suffer from a lack of strong singers. And that easygoing quality that's such an asset most of the time doesn't serve some seemingly less-developed sketches, which might benefit from some comedic punch. But those weaknesses are outweighed by things in the show that are fun and clever, like the choreographed transition in which the actors mime a car wash, a gym workout, and a shower; the dance routine in tribute to Barack Obama; that "silent snuff film"; or just the offbeat characters in which these performers have appealingly immersed themselves. The sketches in Winning Dirty are loosely themed around the desire to get what's yours and get it by whatever means possible, but there's nothing underhanded or selfish about the way the Frank Mills get their laughs. They're winning by virtue, by being old-school comedians.

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Winning Dirty, The Frank Mills, Erika May, Bob McNichol, Dave Buckman, Rachel Madorsky

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