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The Pajama Men at City Theatre

Talented comedy duo's material falls short

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Summer is drawing to a close, and theater companies are getting ready to present their fall slates. But before giving itself over completely to its upcoming season, City Theatre presents a two-week run of touring duo The Pajama Men.

Part improv and part sketch, the performance is 70 minutes of quick cerebral comedy performed by the titular Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez — two guys who met in high school and quickly bonded over their impressive performance skills and love of the surreal. The men have appeared all over the world — they've been big winners on several occasions at the Edinburgh Fringe — and now here they are onstage at City.

I'm unfamiliar with their work, but I can only extrapolate from this performance that the two men work out some sort of story/structure beforehand, as well as the various characters who will follow that story's journey. With this skeleton in place, Allen and Chavez can then riff and improv as their mood, and that of the audience, permits.

They are remarkable physical comedians. It's not just that the characters they create are formed by insight and fitted out with defining movement and physicality. What's really notable is the lightning-quick change from one character to the next, and the razor-sharp precision of those changes. Both men offer nimble, tight and pristine performances.

Less successful is their work as writers. Their show at City Theatre is something about a monster who comes to life once every 700 years: A few of the people who come into contact with the beast are a king and his majordomo, two suburban housewives, a pair of police officers and a bored Spanish roué.

Again, I don't know their oeuvre, but given the plaudits and awards Allen and Chavez have garnered, I doubt that what I saw represents the best they can offer. Perhaps they're workshopping this particular set-up; in comedy, after all, failure is just as important as, and even more instructive than, success.

The work feels cluttered and muddy — deadly for a comedy — and surprisingly claustrophobic. Given how extraordinarily talented the two men are, there's a very real sense of waiting for the material to rise to the level of their abilities. At this stage in the process, that hasn't happened quite yet.

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