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A CurtainUp Review: Lifegame

by Les Gutman

One of the reasons I did this is... I want a talk show.
---Nancy Rosenthal, Lifegame's 9/26 onstage guest

S. Duffy & N. Ashdown 
with L. Simpson & G. Dartnell looking on (Photo: Russell Caldwell)

After a summer in which the principal excitement in the world of entertainment in America has been the onslaught of "reality" television, it probably shouldn't surprise anyone that our friends across the Atlantic have now arrived on our shores with a dose of reality theater as well. Hence, Lifegame. The prospect might sound dismal except that the execution of this enterprise is in the hands of The Improbable Theatre whose two prior New York shows (70 Hill Lane and Shockheaded Peter, our reviews linked below) were nothing short of brilliant.

Each night a "guest" is selected to appear onstage with the Lifegame cast. (The producers seem very anxious to make sure everyone knows that the guest is pre-selected, and not dragged out of the audience.) As the show begins, one cast member escorts the guest to a sitting area, stage right, and commences a friendly interview geared toward eliciting the individual's "story" -- childhood, family, schooling, friends, romances and so on. The emphasis is on the friendly, as the goal here is not to shock or embarrass anyone, but to celebrate the guest's life, telling the story as she (in this case) would have it told. The guest is even permitted to decide which cast member should portray her; that cast member (Angela Clerkin this night) comes over and sits with her. 

Meanwhile, the remainder of the cast is perched across the stage, listening and thinking. When the spirit moves them, they rise and begin improvising a dramatization of the story, sometimes pulling a few props from around the stage or the wings. (The night I saw the show, a piece of foam rubber came in handy for a host of purposes.) There's also a musician, Toby Park, who tries to keep up with the developing theme (and, on this night, pitches in as the family dog as well).

The shape of the story, naturally, will vary from night to night, so there's little point in filling in details, since they won't be repeated. But there's far more at work here than just a group of actors creating by the seat of their pants -- although that's what they'd have you believe. Indeed, if there is a generalized impression to be drawn from Lifegame, it has to do with the opportunity the audience gets to see the architecture on which improv -- good improv at least --is constructed. 

It's clear that the basic direction of the story has been carefully, if gently, mapped out; the art is in the ability to let it run off the road if it needs to or, I suppose, pull it back out of a ditch if it falls in one. On this night, the guest, Ms. Rosenthal, was a winner: energetic, charming, funny, talented, interesting -- I could go on. Given the opportunity to talk, she did; given the chance to supply dialogue, or edit it, she did; asked to perform herself (as her own grandmother, in one stunning scene), she excelled. It would seem she is the improvisationist's dream.

And yet, as entertaining as the result was, it could also be seen as a nightmare. Simply stated, she stole their show. And so the terrific talents we came to see became little more than cameo appearances (although sometimes quite delicious) in what remained her show Some cast members occasionally found a groove, but others (Stella Duffy in particular) did not on this particular night. On more than one occasion, all of the cast members registered astonishment as they too had become spectators.

What we have to admire here is the cast's resilience, its sense of when to grab and when to release. Toward the show's end, the guest blurted out the admission quoted above, so she was immediately given her wish, assuming the interviewer's chair and invited to pick the person she'd like to have as her first guest. Improvisation, it would appear, has a lot to do with learning to give.

Can you be guaranteed the same good time I had? No. What would happen if instead of a winner, the guest turned out to be a loser? I suppose it depends. (It would certainly give these actors a bigger opportunity to impress -- something they've done before.) Should you invest your time and money in something so unpredictable? I can't answer that either. Would you go to see the Yankees without knowing if they'll win? Remember what it's called; it's just a game. Tonight, a fan was given a chance to bat, and hit a home run.

Want to be the next Nancy? Volunteer at If you do it, we'd love to hear from you. If you see the show and have a different story to tell, we'd like to hear from you as well.

CurtainUp's review of 70 Hill Lane
CurtainUp's review of Shockheaded Peter in NY ...DC
Created by Keith Johnstone
Artistic Direction and Design by Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch

with Niall Ashdown, Angela Clerkin, Guy Dartnell, Stella Duffy, Phelim McDermott, Toby Park, Lee Simpson plus a guest 
Lighting Design: Colin Grenfell
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
A production of The Improbable Theatre
Jane Street Theatre, 113 Jane Street (@West Side Highway) (212) 239-6200
Opened 9/28/2000 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 9/29 based on 9/26 performance

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