On Wednesday night I attended a preview event for the new Riot Act Comedy Club at 8th & E Streets NW. The club is a venture from Geoff Dawson, owner of Rocket Bar & Iron Horse, and John Xereas who made his bones during nearly two decades at the DC Improv.
For me personally, this venue has been perhaps the single Penn Quarter addition I’ve had the most anticipation for. I’ve enjoyed standup shows at the DC Improv dozens of times, Caroline’s on Broadway in NYC, Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall in Boston, as well as shows at clubs in a half dozen other cities. I’ve seen Dave Chappelle at four different DC venues and sat 6 rows from the stage when Chris Rock performed at DAR Constitution Hall. My one comedy regret was not splurging on tickets to see Seinfeld at the Kennedy Center a few years back.
Ultimately the comedians themselves make or break the experience for the audience. But the Riot Act venue has some clear pros and cons. From a positive perspective the venue is enormous. The ground floor level has a bar and ample standing area for hundreds of people to mill around as the previous performance comes to a close in the downstairs theater. If you’ve ever had to stand in queue in a narrow hallway at the DC Improv waiting for the 8pm show to end so your 10pm show could enter you’ll appreciate this considerable upgrade. The theater room is also much larger than the space at the DC Improv with higher ceilings and no poles obstructing views of the stage. When Riot Act hits full stride this extra space could be an asset to land premier comics.
That said the vast space is completely void of any personality. My group repeatedly joked that the ambiance of the venue would best be described as “Conference Center”. Every wall was off white with absolutely no wall decor. The dark grey wall-to-wall carpeting reminded me of the carpeting from the TV lounge in the dorm hall I lived in during the mid 90’s. The chairs and tables were clearly from the office cafeteria collection. Later in the evening comedian Tony Woods echo’d our sentiments by incorporating the phrase “I hope you enjoyed this seminar” into his material. While the decor of a comedy club doesn’t need to be as visually stylized as a bar like Iron Horse Taproom I think the total degree of sterility at Riot Act leads to an energy deflating effect.
Many big arrivals such as Hill Country hit the scene as a polished finished product. The Hill Country space will likely stay in that form until the venue closes one day in the (hopefully) distant future. Riot Act seems to be arriving as an unfinished product with much room to improve and evolve. While that’s not what we’re accustomed to in the end the talent the comedy club attracts and showcases and the level of customer service that are most important. The fall schedule seems to send them on the right direction on that front.
Updated [8/11/2011 1:25PM] – For another local perspective check out the review from PQInsider.