Committing to the character is one of the oldest rules of thumb in comedic improv and on a Thursday night in late August at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, there were a number of performers sublimely submitting themselves to celebrity imitations.
One of the impersonation-driven shows anchoring was Seinfeld: The Purge, which has been running since May and set to return Tuesday, Sept. 23. Written by John Ford and directed by Justin Donaldson, it's a near-half hour scripted parody of the NBC sitcom crashed into the cult horror film. While Seinfeld:The Purge has been selling out, the show was upstaged by its predecessor, the debut of Daniel Van Kirk’s The Wahlberg Solution!, a 50-minute improvised current events show hosted by the comedian’s uncanny alter ego, Mark Wahlberg, and featuring his celebrity panelists Michael Caine (Kenny Stevenson), Anne Hathaway (Madeline Walter), John Malkovich (Paul Welsh capturing his creepiness) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Emily Maya Mills nailing her neurosis).
While both shows largely boasted A-game impersonations, the mind boggled in terms of why one would outstrip the other. All laughs being equal, more butts were falling out of seats at Wahlberg. The show returns to UCB in October.
Between Second City Chicago and Nerdist stand-up sets, Van Kirk has played Wahlberg for the last four years. Blessed with the actor’s mug and embodying his Bostonian tough-guy charm, it's apparent that Van Kirk, off stage, wakes up and eats his Wheaties like Wahlberg. Guaranteeing a number of laughs for Van Kirk is the news roundtable — a comedy format that paid off for Monty Python in spades with its Communist Leader World Forum, and an unrestricted set-up that provides the comedians with the liberty to sound off on topics that their characters aren't equipped to, such as cancerous cows and legalization of gay marriage.
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Regarding the cancerous beef sold in Walmart, Van Kirk’s Wahlberg asks his panelists, “Yo, I wanna know: which one of you here has been in a Walmart?” Stevenson’s Cockney-accented Caine responds that it's the best place to exercise while on location filming: The equipment is always on display in the store. Segueing to Lauren Bacall's passing, Wahlberg confesses that he slept with her. “She’s very persuasive – she pulled me through the back window of a Toyota Corolla and humped my brains out,” he said. Caine, too, has bedded Bacall, exclaiming, "I wound up face down in the soil with my clothes off.” Walter’s Hathaway is so spot-on fastidious with her singing and vanity, Wahlberg can't wait to throw her off stage.
In Seinfeld: The Purge, Walter and Van Kirk do double-duty, effortlessly swapping wigs to respectively play Julia Louis Dreyfus’s Elaine and Patrick Warburton's Puddy. However, Seinfeld: The Purge’s killer remains its attempt to emulate the Seinfeld-ian sitcom structure. In the show, Jerry (Joseph Porter) plans to spend the Purge with his new date, but George (Mark David Christenson) wants to purge Joe Temple (Ify Nwadiwe). Since Temple is black, that makes George a Purge racist.
Can the same foursome who were jailed for their selfishness also participate in a Purge? Maybe, but this satire would work better as a sketch because there’s less at risk. Once you have a half hour Seinfeld stage play, the show is faced with the Mount Everest challenge of trying to be funnier than Seinfeld, the sitcom that re-wrote all the rules on situational absurdity. It's more than just mimicking character tropes, which the stage show does. It’s like when American Idol contestants are unfairly asked to sing a Whitney Houston ballad; ultimately there's no justice in the impossible task. Ford is also tasked with writing Seinfeld stand-up material to run during the show's scenes breaks, a feat that lacks the stand-up's classic observational awakenings.
The season nine episode “The Merv Griffin Show” — when Kramer hosts his own version of the famed talk show in his apartment — serves as an appropriate comparison for Seinfeld:The Purge in terms of how the sitcom handled satire. The sitcom winked in a smart way at Merv Griffin without getting bogged down in the details of the talk show. In doing so, the Seinfeld writers organically produced a button for the episode that was totally Seinfeld in its cleverness: Animal handler Jim Fowler’s Hawk snatches George’s squirrel. Seinfeld: The Purge is so beholden to the James DeMonaco film that it forces an ending that's too contrived, and arguably, not the way the Seinfeld creators would joke their way out of a tight situation. But the performances in Seinfeld: The Purge more than make up for its go at complex comedy: Christenson delivers a method turn as George, while Jason Christian’s Newman is so perfect, he deserves more scenes.