REVIEW: 'Invisible World' at the Annoyance Theatre ★★½

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The current mainstage revue at Second City is titled “Depraved New World,” but if you're really looking for the transgressive stuff, it's happening a few miles to the north on Belmont Avenue, where the Annoyance Theatre's new sketch show, which opened in June and runs Saturday nights, is offering a decidedly R-rated spin on the genre.

It is probably no coincidence that the Annoyance show is titled “Invisible World,” which sounds like pointed response to the more conformist material that's onstage across town. Both shows are directed by Mick Napier, which speaks to the enormous amount of crossover that occurs in Chicago's sketch and improv community on a regular basis.

At the Annoyance, which Napier founded, he can be unfettered. The resulting show feels like rebuke to that sharp intake of breath that tends to follow whenever topics stray into too many danger zones. Making fun of recent catastrophes (noted in a song about cries of “too soon!”) is a subject. So are sex and penis jokes. And the biggie: death.

Thematically, this has long been Annoyance's target: Embrace life's sick, filthy laughs and get over yourself already. The show is like a firm yank on those pearls we're all clutching, spilling them onto the floor while the cast looks on with delighted smiles and dares to you be upset.

It's such a tantalizing approach; I'm just not sure all of it works. Fundamentally, the show feels underwritten, and the emphasis on shock humor can feel like aimless scab-picking after a while.

There is the occasional sharp line (“Sounds like a lot of rumors to me,” someone says, and the reply is a insistent, “Tru-mors”) but for the most part Napier doesn't push his cast to create believable characters so much as advance an idea that's driving the sketch, which means a lot of it feels theoretical. I would actually like to see a show that goes darker and weirder and smarter, with fully committed performances.

Matt Barats, long and lean (with a face that can look clownish one moment, repressing rage the next), probably gets closest to nailing the show's potential with a recurring bit that has him air-slapping and air-kicking the living daylights out of people he can't stand. There's something so alive about the way those scenes are staged, with a pulsing “Fight Club” energy and soundtrack. And then suddenly they end, as if nothing happened.

Sketch shows have a rhythm that carry you along, even when bits don't work, and the strongest scenes of the night delve headlong into the bizarre and surreal, including some that feature Tim Paul, who is big and bearded and doesn't push things too hard. One begins with Paul announcing: “I normally don't do impressions on a first date, but this is going well …” What happens next makes no sense and is all the better for it.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

Where: Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont Ave.

Tickets: $20 at 773-697-9693 or annoyancetheater.com.

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