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Review: In “The Theory of Everything,” Collective Project plays it scrappy for big laughs

The Collective Project channels the spirit of the original "Saturday Night Live" cast. (Photo by Hadley(s) Photography)
The Collective Project recalls the original "Saturday Night Live" cast. (Photo by Hadley(s) Photography)

The Collective Project does a lot with a little in its new show, “The Theory of Everything: Solve for X,” at the Goat Farm Arts Center through December 22. The series of 10 short comic sketches — voted on by the audience from a menu of about 20 options — is performed with a charming “hey, let’s put on a show” scrappiness that brings to mind the early days of “Saturday Night Live.”

That TV show eventually became a slick, time-tested laugh machine, as popular and well funded as anything on television. But the first cast slyly referred to itself as “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” performing a low-budget live show in one of the oddest and least watched time slots in the TV lineup. There’s a parallel built-from-the-ground-up, underdog feistiness here. If you long for silly accents, comically chintzy props, ludicrous villains and superheroes, and takeoffs on classic movies, this show is for you.

The evening is framed as a sort of science experiment by which we’ll find the elusive unifying principle of the universe, the “theory of everything.” The cast first appears as a team of scientists in white lab coats, collecting and tabulating the audience’s votes with mock-serious hushed tones. The printed program lists the skits by title along with brief descriptions, and each audience member is allowed to choose three. The most-requested skits are performed, with any ties settled by applause.

“SNL” usually front-loaded its show, scheduling the safest bets and biggest laughs first, leaving the riskier, less certain stuff for later. The Collective Project’s show was weighted the opposite way on the night I saw it. The cast took a couple of skits to find its rhythm. Live sketch comedy done well requires of its practitioners an unsettled, almost obsessive desperation for a laugh, coupled with a seemingly incompatible smooth confidence. This delicate balance wasn’t apparent in the opening skits, though the cast eased into it as the evening went on.

My favorite sketches — which I ended up liking better than the ones I voted for — fleshed out the lives of forgotten or pathetically disregarded characters. The anonymous boy whom Scrooge addresses as “You, there! Boy in the street!,” after waking up on Christmas Day at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” has his story told in the appropriately titled “You, there! Boy in the Street!” Chess pawns complain about their lot in life as they wait, for almost the entire game, in the same spot on the board. Villainous sidekick Landslide has the chance to explain the history of his near-romantic devotion to his leader, the archvillain Chaos. (I believe these are characters from “X-Men,” and though my level of geekdom was surpassed, I still laughed.) An ex-boyfriend accuses a bride-to-be of being engaged to a robot, and when her fiancé enters, he’s quite literally, yup, a robot, the “Lovetron 3000,” offering outrageously chivalric attention that a human boyfriend could never compete with. Even more charming: the stage robot has clearly been built from a bunch of spray-painted junk from Home Depot.

I found the evening more successful than the Collective Project’s previous show, “The Devil Tree.” That Southern Gothic tale, which was similarly group-written, was more ambitious and certainly had its merits, but it never quite gelled its multiple storylines into a cohesive whole. Here, a bit of chaos and multiplicity works right into the formula and seems at home.

“The Theory of Everything” rounds out a promising first season for the Collective Project. It may not end up putting to bed all the mysteries of the universe as the title promises, but it does get sketch comedy right. This young company, with its fresh experiments, ends up schooling us quite a bit about the weird science that is live theater.

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