THEATER | At the Fitz, “Wits” fail to shine

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The audience in the Fitzgerald Theater waits with polite, patient excitement. Tonight (April 29), maybe we and our writers’ groups and book clubs will learn something about writing from George Saunders, a master craftsman of pitch-perfect absurdities. We are here to witness Wits, MPR’s experimental series in which storytellers and musicians take the stage for a humorous themed discussion. Sometime this summer, tonight’s event will become a radio program.

Our musical host appears, looking like a stylishly besuited Steve Martin. John Munson serves as our anchor for the next two hours, via a smooth rhythm of upright bass riffs and gentle guidance, his kind voice soft and rich enough to calm any nerves. The single bottle of Summit on the tiny table beside him remains untouched until well into the second hour, when he seems to decide everything is under control.

Our host John Moe introduces George Saunders, who tells of his false-start first career (seeking oil by blowing up bits of land), and of his transition from self-involved Westerner to empathetic storyteller (it included swimming in a river with monkey feces). “Hard work and for what?” is tonight’s theme, and we learn that Saunders’s next job was pulling knuckles in a slaughterhouse.

While the evening is filled with funny quips and hilarious short anecdotes, it never quite gets off the ground. We never reach any depth or discussion among the wits themselves. They share brief, polite interactions, but mostly everyone takes a turn performing an assigned task. Each person tells a work anecdote. Chuck Klosterman and Amy Sedaris phone in with breathless tales (Klosterman spent a nightmarish season cross-pollinating corn while his work partner accused him of coveting a purple windbreaker; Sedaris has never had a bad job—she always likes something about them, and if she doesn’t, she starts a new project.)

Saunders reads short passages of his writing. Musical guest Mike Doughty and Munson play several of Doughty’s songs. The host periodically reminds us of amusing bits from Saunders’s first story of the night: “And the monkeys in the river were pooping!”

The “for what?” component of the theme receives little attention. No one touches on how work as an institution fits into our lives, why work is or isn’t fulfilling, or, most disappointingly, what these talented people like about the work they do. I gained no insight as to how or why these people create, and this is where the night falls short.

Earlier in the day I had read Saunders’s essay “The Great Divide,” on my way to work. I got off the bus basking in happiness, inspiration and longing. Happiness that someone crafts such lovely sentences, longing to write as well as he does, and inspiration to try. I felt the glow and admiration of interacting with great art.

Sadly, this show did not inspire such a feeling. It’s unfortunate, because I really like the idea of Wits: put funny creative types together onstage and see what happens. But on this particular evening, the sum of the parts was less than the value of these individual personalities.

The show closes with a singalong. Doughty and Munson lead us in a rendition of the classic work song “Sixteen Tons,” and I notice the host has trouble snapping his fingers in time. I suddenly feel I know him a little, and out of nowhere, an image of him in a bowtie flashes through my mind.

Sometimes new ideas take a little trial and error to reach their potential. Here’s hoping that more experimentation with this intriguing concept can make it work.