If you want a "clue" as to the subtle new direction L.A.'s premier venerable comedy troop has taken with this new show, you have only to take note of these fast-paced, if ever-so-slightly disturbing sketches, which are often hilarious, even as they crackle with undercurrents of irony and unease. If previous seasons of The Groundlings have felt perhaps overly influenced by shows such as Saturday Night Live and MadTV shows for which the stage company is admittedly the farm team these vignettes, crisply directed by Jim Rash, possess echoes of the character-driven comedy of Catherine Tate or of the Little Britain series. The result is a series of gags that boasts a coterie of unusually vivid grotesques even though we're sometimes tempted to withdraw from what inevitably turns into a Freaks Parade. The striking standouts include a hateful, brittle, borderline abusive elementary school math teacher (Annie Sertich), who whizzes past class algebra questions with sadistic intensity because she's not being allowed to go on the singles cruise she wants; to the towering, creepy, dirty old dad (Kevin Kirkpatrick), who introduces his sex-kitten girlfriend (Edi Patterson) to his appalled son (Nat Faxon). Other particularly hilarious skits include one that features a pair of slackers (Mikey Day and Andrew Friedman), who don 3-D glasses to enjoy the a frighteningly realistic three-dimensional sword and sorcery epic and a spooky skit in which a pair of psychotic high schoolage Christian fundamentalists (Kirkpatrick and Sertich, again) warn of dire consequences if they don't wind up being elected co-class presidents. Some of the skits peter out long before they should, while a few go on for much longer than they ought. However, the unusual quirkiness of the production suggests an intriguing and fresh new direction for the group that should continue to be explored. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 p.m.; through April 25. (323) 934-4747.
Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 & 10 p.m. Starts: Feb. 13. Continues through April 25, 2009