by Ryan Leeds
Very little is sacred when you’re in the presence of Nina Conti, a multi-award winning ventriloquist currently in a two-week engagement at the Barrow Street Theater titled Nina Conti: In Your Face. It marks the first time that she’s performing in the U.S. after slaying audiences on the West End. It’s always a tricky gamble on whether British comedy will translate to American audiences and I’m relieved to say that it does so in a way that is hugely irreverent and funny.
Before you rolls your eyes with boredom and disinterest over the word “ventriloquist,” take heart and know that Conti is already aware of your prejudice towards what many consider lowbrow, hack entertainment. Although it appears to be completely effortless, she works hard to turn the pejorative profession around and succeeds with flying colors.
Conti, a fit, slender, forty-something who looks like the traditional girl next door, opens her solo show by informing the audience that the show is 90 percent unscripted so it’s a new show every night “so if it’s shit tonight, come back tomorrow night,” she jokes in her posh accent.
Next, we’re introduced to “Monk,” a foul-mouthed monkey that Conti makes so life-like that it’s nearly impossible to believe we’re watching an inanimate object. Monk makes every attempt to insult audience members he connects with, labeling them as “boring” and “do-good fucks,” among others. At one point, “Monk” hypnotizes Conti and stares endlessly at the audience. Never before has a nylon hand puppet been so simultaneously creepy and hilarious. During another portion of the show, Conti crawls into a life-size bag and allows the audience to ask random questions of “Monk.” Questions like, “Will you go home with me?” and “What do you think of Trump”? are posed with quick-witted responses delivered at light speed.
It’s only the beginning for audience participation, though, and if you don’t want to be called onstage, you’d better sit near the back. Conti wrangles guests to the stage and dresses them in face masks. She’s able to control their mouth movement with a gadget resembling a remote control. In this way, she can literally put words in their mouths. At this performance, several eager audience members were called to the stage to create the following characters: An IT Tech guru, city advocate, salty Russian Émigré, and a disgruntled Scotsman. Conti astonishes with her dexterity, both physically and vocally and each of her voices is distinctly different. It’s even more of a feat for her to remember all of their details and weave them into a continuous dialogue, all while switching voices.
Conti’s brand of humor is sarcastic, smart, and bone dry. At times, it can be a bit cringe worthy. One of her volunteers, whom she had trouble understanding was met with the response, “I don’t quite understand you. Is that an American accent? Or is that sort of speech impediment?” He did, in fact have a speech impediment so the audience was left to question whether or not it was safe to laugh. Yet whether she’s hiding behind the guise of Monk or ad-libbing her facemask characters, it’s easy to see that Conti means no harm with her comedy style. Though derisive on the surface, she clearly enjoys laughing with her audience rather than at them and the result is a win/win situation.
Cute animal puppets and animated faces might lead folks into thinking that this is suitable for families, but don’t be misled; Conti pulls no punches and rarely edits anything that her characters say so it’s best to find a babysitter for the night.
The show runs a bit over an hour making for a quick but incredibly worthwhile night of entertainment. Americans have long embraced our artistic friends from across the pond and Conti is a refreshing addition. Her Brit brand of humor is certain to win the accolades of even hardened New Yorkers.
Nina Conti: In Your Face
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through December 23
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.