Villain: DeBlanks

August 21, 2017 | By

In the 1950s, Leonard B. Stern and Roger Price—a pair of TV comedy writers—invented Mad Libs, the comedic word game in which certain nouns, verbs and adjectives in a story are left blank, to be filled in with random suggestions. The duo clearly had a keen appreciation of absurd, Jabberwocky-ish wordplay. And Mad Libs was no passing fancy. It has remained popular in various guises for well over half a century. Nevertheless, the game has its limits. While some of those filled-in blanks yield big laughs, others inspire only mild chortles. And some prompt just eye-rolls or yawns.

An enterprising fellow named Billy Mitchell has now brought a Mad Libs–like program to New York cabaret. His show Villain: DeBlanks features a group of actors reading aloud the script of a whodunit murder mystery. New combinations of performers are featured at each session, with the audience du jour supplying the words that have been omitted from the story. What works best about the show is, perhaps, the collaborative spirit established between the readers and the listeners. At the top of the program, the performers stroll from table to table to gather words, and, in doing so, let the spectators get to know them a little. It’s smart to make the spectators an essential part of what is to unfold. They’ll inevitably find themselves anticipating where the words they’ve supplied will turn up in the script.

The emcee (Mitchell shares emcee honors with Daniel Dunlow, the club’s Director of Programming) encourages the audience not to censor itself—to submit naughty or downright filthy words if the spirit so moves them. Thus it was at a recent episode at The Green Room 42 that the play’s murder victim, Philip DeBlanks, was said to have owned a car nicknamed “The Purple Anus.” Among other memorable Mad Lib-ish jests that night were references to the TV drama NCIS Tel Aviv and the pastoral splendors of “Saturating Squirrel Hill.” And what happy pair wouldn’t like to be compared to “two Snausages in a pod”? Still, when too many filled-in blanks get piled up in one sentence, the effect can be more disorienting than uproarious. Case in point: “Maybe the alpacas of Barcelona are going to propagate my epidermis.”

Even before things get underway, the sheer silliness of the show is apparent in the names of the prime suspects printed in the program—including such shadowy figures as “Orson Buggy” and “Rhoda Pony.” The actors take a loosey-goosey approach to the enterprise, perhaps in part because they’ve been lubricated with potent potables. (At the show I witnessed, the emcee announced at the start that some readers were, in fact, already well into their cups—and I don’t doubt it.) Performers frequently broke character, and adlibs were nearly as frequent as Mad Libs. At one point, readers Rob Morrison and Adam Feldman traded slurping noises with their drinking straws. Later, the audience elected Feldman’s character (played as an uptalking California bro) as the night’s murderer. I myself voted for the alluring femme fatale played with flair (and a thick Eastern European accent) by Molly Ranson. Other readers that night were Amy Bizjak, Bernard Dotson, and Jennifer Malenke.

Knowing that a portion of Villain: DeBlanks‘ proceeds is donated to worthy causes (Lambda Legal at the show I attended) might console any attendees who would otherwise find this kind of comedic froth a waste of an hour’s time. I imagine, also, that the tenor of each performance varies considerably based on who’s performing and who’s filling in those blanks. And, as Orson Buggy succinctly observed at the show I saw, “It’s not over ’til the stupendous lady thwarts.”

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Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in and, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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