Some kids dream of running away from home and coming to New York. The playwright Jeffrey Sweet did just that, only to learn that he needed to go back to Chicago—the town A.J. Liebling labeled the "Second City" in an article for The New Yorker—to find the artists and ways of working that would affect him for the rest of his life. You Only Shoot the Ones You Love is a 75-minute solo show that weaves an anecdotal history of improvisation and comedy in the 20th century.
At times, it is personal and funny. At others, it is a very good lecture on the work of Paul Sills, Sheldon Patinkin, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Del Close, Charna Halpern, David Shepherd, Viola Spolin, Avery Schreiber, Neva Boyd and other luminaries in the Chicago comedy scene. Either way, it is clear that Jeffrey Sweet has an abiding love for these people and what they have done to change and influence entertainment from the backs of bars to the big screen.
The simple style of this production is in line with one of the big lessons Sweet learned from his time in the world of improvisation: you only need actors and an audience to make good theater. A stool, a music stand and some dimming of the house lights are all that's added to the performance in order to transport us from Chicago to New York to Toronto to Russia to London and back again. Much like long-form improv, the structure follows several threads and certain remarks are recalled to let us in on the care taken in the storytelling. Nothing is wasted or without a point in this piece.
A lot of solo performers take a seat when telling stories. Some of them sit behind a desk and go off notes on paper. Sweet does neither. He spends most of the show standing between the stool and the music stand. He only sits a couple of times towards the end. I did not see him even look at the music stand so I do not believe he had any notes there. (Maybe it was there just in case the audience became unruly and could be used unexpectedly as a weapon.)
He is, in short, there with us and has nothing to hide behind. The director Patricia Birch used a light hand on this performance and it has paid huge dividends. Sweet does not move to different areas of the stage as he tells different parts of his story. There aren't flashy transitions or crazy videos between segments. It is as seamless as bumping into somebody at a party and hearing one incredible story after another.
I got the sense listening to this that the script is largely improvised into a heavily outlined structure but not necessarily scripted. Or I hoped that would be the case, considering the subject matter. It certainly felt that way. And hearing him speak about other little stories with audience members milling about after the show, I can tell you he is the same both on and off stage.
You don't learn what makes improvisation work or fail in this piece but you do get little insights into personalities and wonderfully dysfunctional relationships of the pioneers of Chicago improv. Some of my favorite stories centered on Paul Sills and Del Close.
In the end, we find out less about who Sweet is and more about who he has known. I hope everyone who takes classes or performs at the Peoples Improv Theater, Upright Citizens Brigade and Magnet Theater will see this to hear first hand where what they do started. A lot of the pioneers mentioned are no longer with us.