‘Not a Pyramid Scheme’ at WIT unpacks grifting with comedy

Washington Improv Theater features characters trying to market a wacky item suggested by the audience, but what do you do if it's a dud?

I’ve been eager to make it to a Washington Improv Theater show for about five years — they are one of DC’s premier comedy institutions, arguably DC’s center for comedic improv, and I’m embarrassed that I haven’t been over there yet. I was intrigued by the premise of their latest show, Not a Pyramid Scheme, which on paper is an appealing premise. An improvised comedy show about a complex financial phenomenon from one of DC’s premier comedy troupes? I’ll give it a try.

Not a Pyramid Scheme has a grounding premise — the hijinks of a cast of characters as they attempt to market a wacky item, prompted by an audience suggestion — and the outline of a resulting story structure. Unfortunately, the show that I saw suffered from an audience prompt that just didn’t offer much comic payoff.

Taylor Kniffin, Liz Hoke, and Steph Wilson in ‘Not a Pyramid Scheme.’ Publicity photo courtesy of Washington Improv Theater.

Under the direction of Clare Mulligan and Kaelan Sullivan, this particular show followed a group of multilevel marketers and their majority high school–aged victims as the grifters attempt to market helmets for bikers made of human hair called “hairmets.” I think it would take a cast of SNL-level minds on stage to continue mining that joke for consistently successful comedy for 55-plus minutes (the first 20-ish minutes of the evening was a performance by WIT improv ensemble Lizard Girl). So many of the jokes rhetorically revolved around the idea that the “hairmets” themselves were funny that much of the iffy quality of this show can fairly be chalked up to an off-night where the performers felt wedded to a bad first joke. When you’re up there on stage accepting a prompt, it’s hard to ask yourself in the moment whether something is going to work out as a milkable long-term concept — not to mention, the golden “yes-and” rule of improv prevents you from saying “no” much at all.

In sum, the attempted shoehorning of the show’s comedy into an organized structure, paired with a core “item” that was not ripe for much comedy, resulted in a show that was not as successful as it could have been. I completely understand that some concepts offered via audience suggestions are required by improv-law to be worked through during a show, but surely if a concept is clearly not bearing fruit, it can be evolved slightly.

Not a Pyramid Scheme reached the bar thanks to a few key standout performers, including Tom Di Liberto, the comedic core of the show — he plays a high school-aged dork who the marketers and high school students are shocked to learn is shockingly romantically experienced. He brings the absurdist, excellently delivered physical and verbal comedy that so frequently makes improv successful as a medium. Christina Malliris plays a Barbie-esque, Disney-villain version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch actress Melissa Joan Hart placed in charge of the pyramid scheme. Jordana Mishory, another standout, plays a chess-obsessed high school student whom the grifters swoop in on and attempt to recruit. Meredith Garagiola plays another lead marketer whose sheer enthusiasm keeps the story moving. Samiyyah Ali is also exuberant and a dependable source of clever concepts and one-liners, as are Peter Jones and Steph Wilson.

There are 13 cast members in the program in addition to the two directors who introduce the show, and the show’s lack of holistic comedic focus may be due in part to the sheer number of people on stage. The Washington Improv Theater, with its inclusive spirit toward early improvisers, is known for its educational programming for the DC community and classes for office teams who could use some improv as a means of broadening their minds and loosening up. Though I think Not a Pyramid Scheme would benefit from having fewer main characters so that each could have their time to shine and introduce themselves to the audience, at the end of the day, getting more people on-stage experience may be more important.

(Above, clockwise from top:) Caroline Chen, Steph Wilson, Christina Malliris, and Clare Mulligan; (below:) Bethany Coan, Samiyyah Ali, Meredith Garagiola, and Tom DiLiberto in ‘Not a Pyramid Scheme.’ Publicity photos courtesy of Washington Improv Theater.

I wish I had another chance to see Not a Pyramid Scheme. These are talented performers, and I can’t wait to see their other work. I am ultimately not making a judgment on all performances of Not a Pyramid Scheme, just the one I saw, and that’s the beauty of improv. These performers have the ability to rework concepts and improve on ideas that aren’t working mere seconds after they’re debuted. The key to the broader success of this show, I think, will be the immediate thinking-through on stage of that multi-level-marketed item. I know that workshopping and planning are contrary to the spirit of improv, but maybe a few ideas for an item that is plenty funny and ripe for elaboration could be prepared in advance. Is that approach a grift for a show about grifting? Absolutely.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 15 minutes, no intermission.

Not a Pyramid Scheme plays through June 10, 2023 (remaining shows are June 2, 3, 9, and 10), presented by Washington Improv Theater performing in the Milton Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($5–$25) online.

The program for Not a Pyramid Scheme is online here.

COVID Safety:  Currently, WIT is requiring audience members to wear masks in performance areas. To learn more about Studio Theatre’s COVID safety policy, visit their health and safety page.

For the complete schedule of WIT’s 2022/23 season at Studio, visit witdc.org/watch/.

Logo design by Caroline Brickell

Washington Improv Theater debuts at Studio and it’s don’t miss (review by John Stoltenberg, October 4, 2022)



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