The premise is simple…but twisted. Take an actor who has memorized and rehearsed a scene from a play and pair them up with an improviser who has no idea of what is about to unfold. Let them sort it out on stage, live in front of an audience, and let the hilarity ensue.
Gravid Water, the long-running Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre show, came to the Brava Theater in the Mission District this past weekend. It was the show’s 5th time returning to San Francisco for the city’s annual Sketchfest comedy festival. Gravid Water would be a complete trainwreck in the hands of less skilled performers, but with a lineup of comedians this good, it made for the perfect combustible comedy recipe. To kick off Saturday’s late afternoon performance, Oakland’s own Adam Pearlstein warmed up the crowd with a standout stand-up set that got the whole theater ready for maximum laughs.
As Gravid Water got ready to take the stage, the show’s creator and director Stephen Ruddy welcomed a packed house and made sure everyone was in the know on what was about to go down. Though previously announced guest star Tony Hale wouldn’t arrive in time (due to filming commitments for Veep), the audience would welcome his HBO series’ castmate and UCB founding member Matt Walsh. Walsh, alongside fellow improvers Suzi Barrett (whose improv troupe Sentimental Lady opened up the show) and another UCB original, Ian Roberts, would each pair up with an actor for scenes they had absolutely no prior knowledge of.
The actors featured were equally as brilliant, with Maria Thayer from Strangers with Candy and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Lucy Davis from The Office (UK) and the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, Tom Lenk from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Broadway: Rock of Ages, and San Francisco’s own Kevin Pollak (whose great films credits are too long to list here).
The audience was treated to five hilarious two-person scenes. Maria Thayer and Matt Walsh teamed up for a bizarre drunken love dance in Last Gas by John Cariani. Lucy Davis and Ian Roberts met for a tryst with a prostitute or a lesson in stargazing in Death by Woody Allen. Suzi Barrett and Kevin Pollak brought the house down with their tale of a wounded soldier and his horny, lonesome caretaker in Abigail, 1702 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Stephen Ruddy (stepping in for Tony Hale) and Matt Walsh returned for Dog Sees God by Bert V. Royal in which a park bench conversation goes round in spiritual circles as a man says goodbye to his pup. And lastly, Tom Lenk and Ian Roberts came back to find an unrequited, inappropriate romance with a gym coach in Valhalla by Paul Rudnick.
After years of hearing about Gravid Water’s epic setup, the experience did not disappoint. The uproarious absurdity caused by this bizarre theatre mash-up exemplifies how breaking all the creative rules can oftentimes lead to unimaginably stellar results. There’s no doubt that the show’s actors and comedians each had their work cut out for them on stage last weekend, but what they delivered was one of the most memorable shows of this year’s festival. Sketchfest continues this week, so grab a ticket and check out some of the country’s best comedians, while they are still in town for just a few days longer.