Canadian improvisationess Rebecca Northan has arrived at a remarkable insight: An unscripted comedy hour is really no different than a blind date — you’ve never met, there’s zero trust, one or both of you is a more than a little desperate, and there’s a two-drink minimum — so why not simply combine the two? That’s the setup of Blind Date, a perfectly unctuous improv act imported from a sold-out Toronto run by Broadway impresario Kevin McCollum (Avenue Q).
Northan, armed with nothing but a red clown nose and her considerable charm, is Mimi, a game Parisian mademoiselle on a man-hunt. She bats her big Amelie eyes and perfumes the theater with her cheese-bisque Gallic accent, but her greatest asset is her patient observational wit — and a frisky willingness to go out on a limb. She selects a gentleman from the audience (I’m guessing it’s always a gentleman — Mimi’s tastes seem pretty clear), and walks him through the Western world’s most awkward mating ritual. From the first exploratory bistro gambits to flirty aperitifs back at Mimi’s bachelorette pad, the lucky draftee gets to spend nearly an hour on stage as a full (if not fully in control) partner in a comedy duo — and then the rest of the evening explaining himself to his actual date.
I suspect the ladies won’t mind much; this is a show designed chiefly for them. Blind Date is an exercise in very light comic bondage, really just a bit of good-natured boy-training that uses the basic principles of improv to test chivalric reflexes: Does he pick up his cues? (If the mimed car breaks down, does he realize it’s up to him to mime-fix it?) Does he know when to ask questions about her life? Does he know when to stop asking? Does he snoop in her apartment? Is he not interested enough to snoop? Ultimately, does he uphold the sacred shared fiction of the scene, i.e. the relationship? It’s a question that haunts every team, on stage or in the bedroom. Mimi’s victims are chosen at random, we’re led to believe, but I suspect this show will sort all suitors into three basic types: Mr. Compliant, Mr. Defiant and Mr. Clueless, all of whom are equally good for a laugh.
Chances are, you’ve seen this sort of extreme audience-participation before–probably in a comedy club, possibly for eight-dollars-plus-cover. What the impressively self-possessed Northan manages to supply is suspense. She doesn’t smash boundaries; she erodes them gradually, and (rare for any performer) always keeps the focus on the mark. The volunteer is the show. The night I attended, jealousy really did appear to rear its head (however wryly) when Mimi’s date read his scene partner a bit too perfectly — he kissed Mimi by the book, precisely when he should have, and proceedings were adjourned to discuss this development with his girlfriend. (Northan keeps a “time out” box to one side of the stage for just such occasions.) It was a light peck that spoke more to the power of social rhythms, peer pressure and ingrained dating mores than to any real chemistry on stage, but that didn’t stop it from supplying the night’s dramatic peak. (Like any date — and a good many improv shows — this one can have its longueurs.) Mimi was quick to point out that she’s only a clown, not a real person: That Bozo nose is supposed to serve as sword, shield and burka. And so it does. This is a date show, not alt-comedy, and there’s never any real risk on stage. The laughs are warm, gentle, organic, not orgasmic; Northam’s aims are playful, but safe, normative even. But damn, she closes the deal, yo — and on the first date, too. Ridi Pagliaccio!
Blind Date, at Ars Nova through December 20.