The listing for Pennybacker on offoffonline.com reads, "Pennybacker is f*cking unhinged. Pennybacker is a cab flying off a bridge into the East River. Pennybacker is named for the greatest regional manager of a video rental store that ever lived, Adam Pennybacker, whose golden locks danced lyrically in the Virginia wind as he ran tapes to and from the new release wall. As such, Pennybacker is out to rearrange your alphabet, fool!" With such a cryptic and tantalizing description, this critic felt that his life would forever be lacking somehow if this—event? experience?—passed by uninvestigated.
Pennybacker is not really a cab flying into the East River. It's an improvisational theater troupe consisting of 10 members. To adequately assess the quality and success of an improv performance like this one, two questions must be asked. Is this group different enough from the limitless number of other comedy teams to add something significant to the genre? And, above all else, is it entertaining?
Whether entertaining or not, improvised comedy has a long history in this country. Professional improv as we know it today was nurtured here in the States, though the earliest forms came from commedia dell'arte players in 16th-century Italy. Such institutions as the Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Saturday Night Live, that mecca of late-night-TV comedy, have inspired many groups like Pennybacker in both Chicago and New York over the past 50 years.
Improv theater troupes act as a doorway into the bawdier and more playful regions of the theatrical experience. Improv doesn't aim to stimulate provocative thoughts in an audience, and it's not a herculean effort to evoke the emotional responses it gets. Nobody wants the doorway to our subconscious funny bone locked up tight until the critical moment of cathartic release. We want it to be f*cking unhinged.
Pennybacker begins very unspectacularly with the entrance of the company's members, who form a semicircle on the stage. A single-word suggestion is requested from the audience to get the ball rolling. On this night, the word happened to be "plunger." From there, the company members casually recounted a few experiences with plungers, including a surprising and delightful insight from Elizabeth Trepowski: "I clean my bathroom every day because it keeps me real." Keeping it real is what Pennybacker does best. With the evening's theme silently agreed upon, the company progressed organically into a series of scenes about toilets.
With their blatantly casual opening—reminiscent of a bathrobe-clad Tracey Ullman's signature sign-off—the company's members add honesty to the outlandish and historically over-the-top tradition of improv. They radiate an air of relaxation that suggests they would be performing even if the audience wasn't present. Though their online synopses and press materials suggest the more erratic energy of a developing company, their craft is polished and professional. The graceful system by which the members tag each other in and out of scenarios is closer to ballet than to SNL. There is no showboating. Each member is devoted to the success of the group as a whole. If a scenario begins to fail, another member quickly steps in to deliver the perfect punch line or redirect the scene entirely.
The scope and variety of ideas presented during this night's performance were impressive and diverse. For an evening that centered exclusively on toilet humor, office etiquette, and under-motivated Harvard students, the gags and situations were always fresh. There was never the feeling of "Didn't we just see this two minutes ago?" that can occur even in the upper echelon of improv.
Of course, Pennybacker is not exempt from the inevitable loss of focus that comes when a company member has gone too far. In one case, Lisa Reinke became trapped in two characters: an American woman who was impersonating a Japanese woman. This led to trouble interacting with other cast members, because some spoke to the American woman while others addressed the hysterically stereotyped Japanese character. After improvising herself into a corner, Reinke burst into laughter until she was "tagged out" by another member. Yet those who might think such a break in focus is unprofessional and not entertaining should remember that SNL cast member Horatio Sans seems to have made a living out of his inability to keep in focus.
In answer to the questions posed above, Pennybacker's uniqueness is subtle but substantial enough to be wildly entertaining. More important, the show is a resounding alternative for those who claim to be bored with more aggressively publicized improv troupes, and it is a fitting successor to the great companies of the improv underground. Once the alphabet of improvised theater has been successfully rearranged, it will probably spell "Pennybacker."