As they wrote, there wasn't a plot Flying Tongues didn't like Theater review: Improv troupe has some nice things to say, but someone should have bought an eraser.

January 19, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Flying Tongues, Baltimore's homegrown comedy improv troupe, has taken a stab at a more predictable format, creating its first fully scripted production.

The result, "Punch the Clock" -- currently at the Theatre Project -- suggests that though the Tongues may have licked improvisation, these wacky guys have a ways to go when it comes to more traditional scripted comedy.

Written by the Tongues -- Joe Brady, Jimi Kinstle, Larry Malkus and Bruce Nelson -- who also perform, along with a trio of guest actors, "Punch the Clock" is about a typical day in an office building in a town called Orderville.

The town's name is apparently intended to be ironic, as in: There's no order in Orderville. The activities on stage reinforce that notion, despite the running narration by the building's janitor (Tim Marrone), who insists nothing remarkable ever happens here.

The janitor, who punches the employees' time cards in the beginning and punches them out at the end, is the show's neatest device -- a symbol of consistency in an atmosphere that is anything but. And, Marrone's low-keyed delivery of the janitor's philosophical lines lends the evening a folksy flavor, reminiscent of a Frank Capra movie, or the character of the Stage Manager in "Our Town."

But once the plot, or perhaps I should say, "plots," get going, "Punch the Clock" takes off in so many directions, it feels as if it were created all too improvisationally -- as if the Tongues said, "Let's try this," and "Let's try that," and finally, "Let's leave everything in."

There are plots about a love-sick stalker named e.e. (after the poet, whose poems pop up throughout the show); and about a powerful lawyer, who will resort to anything, even issuing trumped-up terrorist threats, to avoid cuts in the government defense spending; and about a group of uppity caddies who take control of Orderville's Only-the-Rich-Can-Play Golf Course.

Several of these plots and characters -- particularly the caddies and the lawyer -- are inter-related, though at times it's difficult to sort out exactly who's who and what's up, a situation exacerbated by multiple casting.

A few serious issues are raised along the way, including LTC corporate downsizing, the short-sightedness of the media and big business' manipulation of big government.

And there are some enjoyable performances -- especially those of Nelson as a dim-witted mail clerk and Kinstle as a lounge lizard.

But so much doesn't make sense. Except for a general picture of how employees travel to work -- on foot, via subway, etc. -- I couldn't figure out most of the specifics in the opening mime scene. Nor do I have any idea why the lawyer dons boxer shorts over his trousers when he meets with the caddies. For that matter, just who are these caddies and what's their agenda?

The Flying Tongues included scripted material in its shows in the past, but those scripts often lacked the spark of the improv work. In this case, since all four troupe members are credited with the meandering script, the problem may be too many Tongues spoiling the plot. Even a play about disorder in Orderville needs a coherent, sustained vision.

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