On a recent Friday night I was sipping my Summit and watching a young couple engage in a drunken public spat. The woman had done one too many shots and was about to let the liquor do the talking.

Like everyone else around me, I was riveted by a scene that plays out almost every weekend in downtown Minneapolis. The woman had been slamming shots of Jagermeister and Jack Daniels like they were heat-seeking missiles ready to explode. Boom. They detonated and she let loose a cacophony of insults, most unfit to print. Her final blow compared the boyfriend's manhood to the slender dimensions of a ballpoint pen. Ouch.

I laughed, along with everyone else in the room. The response was encouraged -- we were watching a play, after all.

But this was unlike most plays. Intermissions arrived every 10 minutes or so. Drinking games filled the downtime. Sex jokes filled the comedy sketches.

All in all, it was an evening overflowing with debauchery and attitude.

In other words: My kind of theater. In its fourth week, "Bye Bye Liver: The Twin Cities' Drinking Play" has been drawing crowds to the intimate Hennepin Stages theater. In the 75-minute show, a young cast moves surely and swiftly through a half-dozen sketches, each an exposition on the drunken, hilarious situations we've either witnessed or experienced ourselves.

There's the aforementioned "shot girl," that one person who shouldn't be doing shots. Other sketches reveal the secrets behind beer goggles and getting into VIP. Another takes us into the ladies room to find out what women really do when they go the bathroom together.

The language is lewd and the humor can be crude. I watched an older couple sitting at a nearby table cover their mouths on more than one occasion. As actor Mike Rylander told me, "We're not doing high Shakespeare art. It's an interactive drinking show."

Born in Chicago

"Bye Bye Liver" was created four years ago in Chicago by playwright Byron Hatfield. By phone last week, he told me six years of college proved to be "research" well spent. His Pub Theater Company still performs the comedy four times a week and recently has expanded to Milwaukee and St. Louis. Minneapolis is the first franchised version, this one put on by the Minnesota Actor's Theater and Hennepin Theatre Trust.

While the comedy is light-hearted, Hatfield said his idea for "Bye Bye Liver" came from a more serious place. He hopes this sort of play can get young patrons invested in the future of the art form he loves.

"We call it a gateway drug to theater," he said.

In the Twin Cities, "Bye Bye Liver" has been adapted by director John Haynes, the head of the Actors Theater's Creative Institute and a longtime improv teacher. He localized the script and put together a talented cast, filled with actors who can shift gears on the fly. While a prop bar sits on stage, the theater's real bar stays open during the entire play to fill audience orders. Haynes said there is a fine line between getting the audience engaged with drinking games and letting a drunken crowd get out of hand. Hatfield learned this the hard way back in Chicago.

"Originally it was BYOB," he said. "We quickly moved away from that. It was sort of a Wild West experience."

The audience's guide through these intoxicating misadventures is a bartender played by Rylander. As host, it's his job to lead the drinking games between sketches, but also to keep the crowd focused on the stage. The 28-year-old actor is a part-time bartender at the 508 Bar in downtown Minneapolis. He saw parallels between the two gigs.

"When I work as a real bartender, you hope that your shift is going to go fine and you won't have to ask anyone to leave," he said. "But if something happens, you have to take care of it. It's the nature of the beast."

Actress Alyssa Szarkowski, who also has worked as a server at Psycho Suzi's and Eli's, plays several characters in "Bye Bye Liver." She found it easy to identify with alcohol-spiked emotions on display in the play.

"Back in the day, there's definitely been moments when you have a little too much and your evil side comes out," Szarkowski said. (The liquor on stage is fake.)

While the play is centered around drinking (don't worry, you don't need to buy a drink if you don't want to), the creators say they are satirizing, rather than promoting, overindulgence.

Creator Hatfield said if the Twin Cities audience continues to get behind the play, he hopes it will have an open-ended run, as it has in other cities. He also said audience participation shouldn't stop with the drinking games. In Chicago, several of the sketches came from crowd suggestions after the show. Hatfield said the play's bargoing audience contains "an incredible depth of material."

Most people just call it another Saturday night.

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909

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