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Funny. It doesn't look like theater.

For two nocturnal sketch comedians, the play's the thing.

Photograph: Angela Manginelli
WISE GUISE Klepper, left, and Waltien play themselves, and others.

A few years back, my favorite Saturday-night decompression after a week of proper play openings was a midnight revue at iO’s Del Close Theater called Late Night Late Show. A fictional, wiseass-populated talk show featuring interviews with real-life guests (from local politicians to hot-shit athletes), Late Night was weekly, contemporary, localized vaudeville that often made me wish theater were more like it—before I loosened up and realized it was theater.

I was reminded of this last week when I went to check out the new late-night sketch show by the comics who played Late Night’s hosts, Steve Waltien and Jordan Klepper. Their revue, Steve and Jordan, Respectively—a crafty, theatrical hybrid of neurotic first-person confessions and top-shelf sketch that borders on performance art—probably isn’t breaking new ground in its form or content. But like so many improv-created sketch shows from early Compass Theater artists like Alan Arkin, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, it feels just as dramatically sound, culturally relevant and honest in performance as any contemporary theater piece.

In the early 1960s, when affordable Times Square stages could accommodate a broader variety of entertainment, Second City sketch revues played in Broadway theaters alongside the work of Tennessee Williams and Rodgers and Hammerstein. This isn’t to say that Waltien and Klepper should move to Broadway; in fact, I can’t fathom a more ludicrous notion. But given the lusty, inherent need to play other people in front of a live audience, and given the miserable, touch-and-go existences they’re willing to endure to get the opportunity, I’ve come to understand that sketch and improv practitioners are theater people.

At once tight and loose, esoteric but accessible, the structural meat of Steve and Jordan, Respectively is traditional two-man situational material: A space shuttle’s two surviving crew members have been forced to kill the other astronauts because they’ve gone “space crazy”; in a casual encounter between two strangers, one tries to convince the other that all human beings look like “a bird, a horse or a muffin”; and the capper—the reason I wish every self-serious theater artist in town could see this revue—delivers a send-up of two dreadfully earnest Chicago storefront actors attending Wicked because their girlfriends play Glinda and Elphaba (a stingingly accurate satire of both corporate art and corporate-art conspiracy theorists).

But it’s the two brief, unsettling monologues that elevate the show to (even past?) the level of a theatrical event. After a first-person bit in which the pair confess their obsession with fetishized junk-news stories, each comedian performs a soliloquy as a presumably unsympathetic character from a humiliating, much-circulated story from CNN.com. Klepper speaks as the average-joe truck driver who unknowingly struck and dragged a wheelchair-bound young man several miles on Michigan’s Red Arrow Highway last summer.

Meanwhile, Waltien speaks as the now-infamous, much-mocked Sudanese farmer forced to marry one of his female goats in 2006 after fellow villagers caught him molesting it. Though terse, the empathic voices Waltien and Klepper provide these men trump anything I’ve seen in documentary-theater pieces that intend to accomplish the same effect by quoting life’s unfortunates directly. And Waltien’s daring but easeful speech as a lonely 27-year-old goat herder is probably the smartest take on natural human perversion I’ve ever heard from a Chicago theater artist, including the ones who traffic in sexual minorities.

These days, by the time the general public sees the work of American sketch and improv artists, its theatrical qualities tend to be rinsed out. Unlike in the variety-heavy days of Ed Sullivan, most of the comedy Americans now see taped on a live stage is stand-up, little of which is character based. But, as we’re constantly reminded by lobby murals and glassy photos that pimp out our famous alums, countless key players in our national comedy scene started out doing live, experimental ensemble playing, from the boards of venues from the tiny artist co-op the Playground to the main stage of Second City.

Cranky, lanky, whip-smart and crass, Waltien and Klepper are urban folk artists, picking material up off the street, bringing it into the bar and making something instant, aesthetic and consumable out of it. I’d see them now rather than later. Not because you’ll get bragging rights if they get famous, but because Steve and Jordan are theater people. And they’re always better in the flesh.

Steve and Jordan, Respectively has two weeks left at iO Del Close Theater.

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