Lots of Laughs at Alleyway Cabaret

Babuska can mean an older woman if you’re in Poland or Russia or a headscarf tied under your chin (if you’re the American descendant of that older woman) or it’s a 1980 Kate Bush song (spelled as Babooska). But if you’re in the Theatre District on the fourth weekend of the month between now and the end of the year, Babuska! is an improv duo with a pretty darn funny hour-long show.

Todd Benzin and Don Gervasi are the two comic actors of Babuska! They started the act several years ago as a Buffalo Infringement Festival performance. It’s now found a (perfect) home on stage Alleyway’s Cabaret space.

Full disclosure: I had never been to a live improv show before and was prepared to, as a friend commented, “likely be at the mercy of the dullest wit in the audience.”  Mercifully, that wasn’t the case.

They open the show nicely wearing dress pants and collared shirts with ties (always a nice touch) with a request: they want an audience member to shout out a line from a recent social media post. This is what will spark the show’s plot and dialogue.

Hmm. This could be wild or mild.

The night we saw the show, they were charged to riff around a statement about the virtues of the pre-planned potty. Hmm. Being it’s summertime and outdoor concerts abound and porta-potties are ubiquitous there, the opening scene they contrived was set outside a porta-potty at a concert. Benzin and Gervasi’s skills as actors and comedians didn’t go down the toilet. Their sharp wit is more about word play and conversation and yeah, a few well pantomimed sight gags, too.  The set up is that these two old friends got together:  Gervasi is the ‘live in the moment’ guy and Benzin is the pre-planned, pre-pared (riffing on the pre from the social post) guy with a loaded fanny pack and a rain suit on an 80% sunny day. The visible-in-the-mind’s-eye only porta potty may or may not be occupied and there’s indecision about the right was to, ahem, proceed. The scene drifts to the concert entrance when Gervasi becomes the ticket taker and buttoned-up, pre-planned Benzin left his ticket in the rain suit that he doffed outside. More clever word play. More spontaneous and snappy dialogue. More character exposition. This constant volleying is fun to watch and I have to imagine that it’s fun to play, too. The scene shifts backstage with Benzin as the roadie and Gervasi as the British rocker with performance anxiety and lots of demands, including warm vodka and a hot hooker. And just like that, Benzin is the hooker…relying on a softening of his voice and a slack in one wrist as it rests on his hip to convey this slightly sultry role. I gotta say it: I roared.

The hour flies by, with plenty of laughs and some more poignant moments, too, that leave you with the lingering feeling that elements of comedy, indeed, are serious things. Gervasi and Benzin play off each other well. Remember the iconic “Carol Burnett Show,“ back when sketch comedy was king? Watching Gervasi and Benzin reminded me of the show’s Harvey Korman and Tim Conway: while their sketches started out scripted, they often became more off the cuff, and two actors were renowned for tempting each other to break character and laugh. I caught a few moments like that between Gervasi and Benzin and it was fun to watch.

Babuska!  runs one full hour, no intermission, and is onstage at Alleyway Cabaret the last Friday and Saturday every month, the website says, until 2075. Tickets and info here: https://www.alleyway.com/show/babushka