When you were growing up, did you have a friend with whom everything was hilarious? You’d crack each other up, develop weird inside jokes, and were certain that no one else, especially your parents, would get it. Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen, the two actors behind The Pajama Men, have a relationship like that, except their irreverent humor works in front of an audience, too. After honing their show on the international fringe circuit, The Pajama Men come to Woolly Mammoth for the American Debut of their show In the Middle of No One. It’s chaotic in the best way possible, leaving us scarce time to breathe in between the dizzyingly complex improvisation.
The show does not have a plot, exactly. It’s more like a string of sketches held together by time travel and one or two repeated characters, including a sassy ice monster and incompetent alien ambassadors. Chavez and Allen mix improvisation with carefully-written sketches – we can tell because they occasionally confuse each other – so there are wonderful moments of invention alongside sharp dialogue. In one memorable sequence, the actors play two bitchy Latina nurses, and one repeats an impression of a serious detective, each iteration more abstract than the last. How does the audience know the impression is accurate? Chavez plays the serious detective earlier in the scene, which sets up Allen’s increasingly grotesque riffs. Improvisation means The Pajama Men are only limited by their imagination, and one of the most rewarding things about their show is how they expect the audience to keep up.
Like any strong comedy group, The Pajama Men know they must vary their jokes. Because my sense of humor skews toward the darkly transgressive, I laughed the most whenever In the Middle of No One got downright weird. In what may be the most memorable character, Allen is delightful as a bird with a peculiar lullaby. Another highlight is Allen’s lengthy, oddly specific description of a “Fuck Me Machine.” Later, when they are playing two southern women, Chavez keeps saying he’s so angry he could rip his face off and suddenly pantomimes the nasty surgery. This kind of bizarre humor is not for everyone – I could feel the audience wince during a particularly violent scene – but it moves at a steady clip so that laughter is never too far away (the understated musical accompaniment by Kevin Hume helps, too). Towards the end, there is a downright silly on-stage montage of the preceding comedy. It’s useful because The Pajama Men cover so many different scenes and characters that a recap helps us remember what made us laugh so hard.
Like two young best friends who are giving off in a basement, there is an underlying sweetness to The Pajama Men. They seem to have a preternatural understanding of one another, whether it’s the trajectory of a scene or how to play to their respective strengths. Even when the scene gets downright grisly, the affection between the actors is plain to see. With his ability to contort his face and a deadpan delivery, Allen is like a cross between Jim Carrey and a live-action Sealab 2021. Chavez, on the other hand, is looser with his improvisation, with a natural ability to push a scene into an unlikely direction. At just over an hour, In the Middle of No One does not overstay its welcome, and leaves on a somewhat perfunctory note. It’s the right choice since a big finish would diminish the breadth of brilliant material that preceded it.
The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One is at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company until January 6th. Buy tickets here!