Theatre Review: ‘The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One’ at Woolly Mammoth

Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez in ‘Pajama Men.’

Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez likely honed their humor in back rows of classes in their Albuquerque, N.M., high school, goofing on the habits and vocal tones of teachers and unlucky classmates.  They developed their ability to create funny scenes through improv, blending grand, cartoon-like movements with super exaggerated voices, accents from old movies, malls or bus stops. Then they had that magic knack of building funny scenes telepathically, with the live wire of adrenaline goading them.

From their very best improv bits, it seems, they carved their stage shows, such as the complex new one at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre, leaving room in their creation for a little more improvisation here and there.  And they bring a trademark – and a performing name — in the versatile clothes they wear on stage: The Pajama Men. There’s nothing sleepy about the Pajama Men. This ain’t sleepwalking despite the attire; it’s more like a shared fever dream fueled by six-packs of Red Bull.

Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez. Photo courtesy of The Pajama Men.

It would probably crimp the delight to say exactly what happens (or what I think happens) in their current show The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One, except to say it includes scenes in a hospital where an intensely skeptical baby has been given birth; it jumps forwards and backwards (characteristic of a show about a guy who either invented a time travel machine or is taking credit for his father’s invention of it), travels to space and encounters some malevolent aliens with elaborate masks, robots who just may be faking, and a bird right out of a more randy Monty Python sketch.

The show seemingly never pauses for set up; even when they are just establishing a character or situation, there’s something funny to feast on, through either a bugged out eye, a wildly exaggerated gesture, or some other sort of identifying tic.  They don’t exactly rely on mime, but you can get that they’re running a gurney through a hospital hallway, leaning on a bar or moving robotically.  They don’t pretend that the magic of being stuck in a glass box or fighting the wind is what everybody came to see.  No, instead they provide a kind of sustained laughter, a mirth that seems almost malevolent in its relentlessness – like being held down and tickled for more than an hour by your brother. Is this what you want from theater? Maybe not, but it’s precisely what you probably need.

By the end, when many of their characters come back in a whirlwind that’s more like a tornado, as if to wrap up, it’s remarkable how many different, memorable personas they had come up, and how fully distinguishable each had become – despite, of course, their similar attire.

These guys have the goods to become very big comedy forces on TV and film.

Befitting pajamas, the duo also performs barefoot, which suggests a dance tradition that’s already evident especially in the broad stage movements of the lanky Allen.

That what might appears to be breakneck improv is actually scripted (or at least practiced) is proven in the lighting cues (John M. Baker is the dramaturg; Jason Caballero the production stage manager).  And the key to what exactly is improvised each night can be seen in the reaction of Kevin Hume, the musician who mostly sits deadpan at the back of the stage as he inserts his occasional acoustic or keyboard-based musical washes (at one point there’s a full song to back a kind of mimed montage in front of him). When Hume starts smiling, you there’s something something afoot on stage. Also, Allen and Chavez allow themselves the luxury to crack one another up on stage as well with occasional detours and asides.

Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen. Photo courtesy of The Pajama Men.

The Pajama Men are the latest of a long tradition of comedy teams that were largely identified by their last names, like so many law firms: Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Ferrante and Teicher.  They could have called themselves Allen and Chavez but that may have been too close to Allen and Rossi or Burns and Allen. No, the name Pajama Men and their reliance on a multiplex of scenes puts them more in the realm of troupes like Monty Python and Firesign Theatre. Certainly, there’s none of the casual back and forth verbal banter of traditional comedy teams and much more of reliance on broad, vivid physical movement.  Frankly, I got more of a Burns and Schreiber vibe from them, perhaps because of the pair of cocktail chairs on stage – the only stage setting they have.

Like the Marx Brothers and the original Frick and Frack (they were a comedy ice skating team before they were a term your grandmother used), the theatrical roots of the Pajama Men give them a brash vaudeville pedigree.  Their time in the UK, where they became a sensation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, lends authority when they put on British accents.  But all the time you’re watching them on the sleek stage at Woolly Mammoth, trying to catch your breath between genius comic turns, you are also thinking: These guys have the goods to become very big comedy forces on TV and film. And you’ll be someday able to brag that you saw them in this very intimate surrounding.

Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission.

Advisory: Some salty language appears, but the humor isn’t dependant on it.

The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One plays the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, through Jan. 6. For tickets, call 202-393-3939 or click here.