The key to the success of "Family Dinner," Huge Improv Theater's perennially popular holiday show, isn't in the laughs, although the seven-member cast generated plenty of those during last Friday's opening performance.
The real hook comes late in the show, when M.J. Marsh's timid young husband professes his love for frazzled wife Katy Kessler, and the audience erupts in a collective "Aww." Making a crowd crack up at an improv show is one thing. Getting them emotionally invested in a cast of characters who only exist for an hour is quite another.
Created by Michael Ritchie and directed by Rita Boersma, both pillars of the local comedy scene, "Family Dinner" features a stacked cast of Twin Cities improvisers tackling a simple but fertile premise: the awkward family holiday dinner. Before the show, audience members jot down a secret for each guest to conceal. The performers then start to build a Thanksgiving get-together from scratch, with those secrets dribbling out over the course of the show. As with any improv show, each night's production is a brand-new creation, never seen before or again.
Part of the fun of long-form improv is watching everyone sort out who they are in relation to everyone else. This edition of "Family Dinner" finds the cast pairing off as our husband-and-wife hosts, an ex-boyfriend with his new wife and child in tow, the hostess' ex-stepfather and his boyfriend, and the requisite unattached sister-in-law. That's a lot of moving parts to keep track of, and the cast handles it ably, replicating the unlikely pairings and uncomfortable discussions that go hand-in-hand with holiday gatherings and elevating them to uproarious yet realistic effect.
It's also likely the only show in town whose primary props are a Thanksgiving dinner, a CVS bag filled with Cracker Jack boxes, and a live baby. That has to count for something.
Casual improv fans may come in expecting over-the-top performances and wacky scenes, but "Family Dinner" is an especially grounded kind of show, drawing more laughs from familiarity than from absurdity.
Kessler in particular gave a strikingly funny and well-observed performance. Who couldn't empathize with the hostess as she exhales into a series of paper bags, beset by her slacker ex and his beautiful wife and baby while she's struggling with possible infertility and trying to dig herself out of an essential-oil-selling pyramid scheme?
The cast doesn't just create characters at whom we can laugh, it presents us with seven hilarious people with whom we enjoy spending an hour. By the end of the evening, those "Awws" are earned. And so are the laughs.
Ira Brooker is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and editor.