Spoleto 2012 » Comedy

Dinner with the Elams: a lifetime worth of comedic chemistry pays off

Gleefully awkward reunion



In a live theatrical performance, an infant is a wildcard. Will he do something cute in the spotlight? Or will he burst into tears, inspiring a chorus of coos and awws from the audience? Either way, he's going to steal the show.

The Chicago family of improv-comedy actors known as Dinner with the Elams pulled off a successful baby scene during Tuesday night's performance at Threshold Repertory Theatre, grabbing an infant nephew — the newest member of the Elam family — from the front row and parading him around as a tiny police sergeant. And when he started to cry, they rolled with it, tagging the baby out (and returning him to his father) before building a perfectly absurd scene about a big-city cop who babbles with glee and suckles at a milk bottle.

It was an intimate evening in at least two ways: The audience packed the tiny Threshold venue to its limit, and the actors on stage let everyone into what felt like a delightfully embarrassing game at an Elam family reunion. Siblings Brett, Erica, and Scott Elam were joined by Brett's fiancée Jet Eveleth and Scott's fiancée Lisa Burton, milking the family ties for awkward moments that only kin can share.

The Elams started off asking for a suggestion of an important life event from the audience — in this case, they got Thanksgiving dinner — and proceeded to improvise a series of scenes that were kinda, sorta based on that event. The invented drama was interspersed with surprisingly personal recollections from their own family history, to mixed results: Sometimes the anecdotes rang true and funny; other times, the stories seemed funnier to the actors than to the audience.

During the skits, the Elams worked best in rapidfire, jumping in and swapping places after a line or two, as when they told the story of a series of roommates, introducing characters from an über-clingy gal pal to a rude-boy reggae fiend. The show suffered whenever scenes went on past their expiration, dragging through clunky dialogue as the actors in the scene seemed to desperately wait for someone to tag them out.

Scott Elam delivered the strongest performances of the evening, inventing ancillary characters who sometimes spun off into their own, much funnier, scenes: an old man confused about some chickens, a tough guy named Trevor whose legs are atrophying because he only exercises his biceps. His timing was impeccable, his lines nearly always surprising.

But the smartest move all night was bringing the baby onstage, a daring feat by Brett Elam that sealed the deal with the audience with only minutes left to go.

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