The Annoyance 25th Anniversary Celebration at Park West | Comedy review

Susan Messing (far left) as Alice and Ellen Stoneking as Dame Toulouse (far right) in Co-ed Prison Sluts, 1989

Susan Messing (far left) as Alice and Ellen Stoneking as Dame Toulouse (far right) in Co-ed Prison Sluts, 1989

Last Saturday night at Park West, Mick Napier exchanged his trademark black tank top for a gray suit to toast The Annoyance, the rollicking, raunchy theater company he founded 25 years ago. Along with Jennifer Estlin, The Annoyance’s executive producer and president (who recently became Napier’s fiancée after a 16-year courtship), Napier hosted over 1,000 tuxedoed and bejeweled collaborators, patrons and friends including Susan Messing, Noah Gregoropoulos, Jimmy Carrane, T.J. Jagodowski, Dave Pasquesi, Rebecca and Rich Sohn (who married at The Annoyance in 1996), SNL alum Melanie Hutsell, Second City CEO and co-owner Andrew Alexander, iO co-founder and owner Charna Halpern and (via filmed tributes) Andy Richter and The Office’s Kate Flannery and Craig Robinson.

“Welcome,” Napier said, a single word that elicited a zealous standing ovation with enough whistling, cat calls, and shouting to render people hoarse. The huge room thudded with sincere gratitude and admiration for the man who admitted giving performers this uplifting pep talk: “Be boring faster.” A nearly three hour show commenced, involving an expected roast of Napier (fittingly born in Hazard, Kentucky).

Many, many musical numbers catalogued the broad content of nearly 220 shows, each topical, sexually infused or strewn with violence—or any combination thereof. Ellen Stoneking sang the song she improvised during an early rehearsal for Co-Ed Prison Sluts. Not a single word was changed, and Co-Ed became the longest-running musical in Chicago. A 19-person cast re-enacted The Miss Vagina Pageant. The very best song of the night was from President Bush is a Very Good Man—an acerbic homage to the 43rd Commander-in-Chief and Evangelical Christian—which christened the theater’s current Uptown home (The Annoyance has had five addresses in the past quarter-century). During the number, actors mimed physical afflictions that might benefit from hi-tech medical advances singing, “Put those stem cells away/God thinks I’m OK.”  

Napier had plenty of poignant, profane acknowledgments. “Being Artistic Director of The Annoyance is pretty easy,” he said. “It’s this sentence: ‘You can do whatever the fuck you want.’” He delved into The Annoyance’s mission of providing a judgment-free space for creativity, where actors “let the audience in on the joke and not feel alienated…even if there’s a lot of language in the show, they know that they’ll be protected.”

The festivities were interrupted by breaking news: Mike Canale, former managing director of The Annoyance, and his wife Megan, a onetime Second City e.t.c. cast member, who’d debated making the trip this weekend trip from Los Angeles, just had a baby boy.

Despite the happy announcement, parts of the evening had a funereal feel to me. A video montage featuring a few seconds from almost every Annoyance show—‘Look what’s been accomplished in 25 years; now what?’—reminded me of a slideshow at an end-of-season party for high school athletes. Present in spirit were Napier’s mentors, improv gurus Martin de Maat and Del Close (who, upon entering The Annoyance circa 1990, yelled “Where are you, you prolific motherfucker?” a compliment Napier still treasures) and peers who vacated to the East and West Coasts. Additionally, the stage and the fancy attire evoked an award-show sensibility without the awards.

Yet the vibe was overwhelmingly positive. Gift bags contained photocopies of the original list of names brainstormed for the theatre such as Shut the Hell Up, Horrendous Discovery and Spastic Colon (I passed the framed document often during my internship at The Annoyance). Several guests wondered about a small plastic party favor shaped like an acute triangle; Napier identified the mystery item as a covert trinket for suave gentlemen: a pair of interlocking wobble wedges. “Because if the table’s a little unstable, so is your conversation…maybe your wine is going to spill, maybe your water, and maybe your hopes. Level the table, level the playing field. At the end, the woman is thinking, ‘Is this my future husband? Or is it that he’s so strong and mentally prepared that I’m going to fuck him tonight? Or is it both?’”

Estlin, the person who obtained the wobble wedges also manages the theatre, planned the party, and submitted Napier’s book, Improvise, to publishers. Someone affectionately said it is she who jumps out of bed to run The Annoyance while Mick does card tricks. When Estlin walked onstage, she received the evening’s final standing ovation, which brought her near tears. In the end, the night was hers.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)