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'Man Seeking Woman's' Britt Lower makes the most of her improv training

Strange and absurdist, "Man Seeking Woman" taps into every insecurity that comes with being young, single and forever stumbling through relationships. The TV series is back for a second season (which began this week on FXX) and though its stories are primarily told from the viewpoint of a guy (star Jay Baruchel as Josh, flailing dude extraordinaire) occasionally the show will shift its perspective to that of Josh's sister Liz, played by Britt Lower.

"Teacup," an episode from last year, was one of the show's best — an anatomy of Liz's angst over a breakup and her looming 30th birthday. In the show's surreal style, she finds herself at a backyard tea party berated for her single status by a group of 7-year-old girls talking to her as if they were her peers: "Is that a real diamond?" a stunned Liz asks one of them, looking at the girl's ring finger. "It better be, or Richard is in big trouble!" comes the reply. Another girl says defensively of her own ring, "I just wanted a simple band because I use a lot of Play-Doh."

"Man Seeking Woman" is full of pop cultural references and parodies-as-metaphors, all of it taking place in heightened, surreal scenarios. (The show is set in Chicago but filmed in Toronto.) There's no existing genre label to describe it — a rom-com that cuts to the bone with a deeply silly sketch improv sensibility — and Lower, a Northwestern University alum who gives her character real human authenticity as a career-focused corporate lawyer, is a key part of why it works so well.

"The creators of the show have produced shows like 'Portlandia' and 'Saturday Night Live' and 'The Simpsons,' " she said when we met at a diner in town, "so we're standing on the shoulders of comedic giants who are so good at jumping genres. The show is so unique and odd."

Originally from Heyworth, Ill., Lower recently moved into a new home in Los Angeles. But she was in Chicago last month for the holidays to see friends and teach a workshop at Northwestern that combines improv and meditation ("It's called 'Being a Human and Other Reminders,' " she told me, "which is my approach to acting") before making the trip to Normal, where her parents live.

Comedy, she said, "was a surprise for me. I honestly thought I'd be doing Pinter plays and Shakespeare and Greek dramas. But my freshman year at Northwestern I went to a new student orientation and there was this improv group on campus and I thought, 'Well that's the most terrifying thing I've ever seen.' They had auditions the next week and I thought, 'I'm just going to go and see what happens.' And it turns out that it was the best training I could have possibly ever had because it is all the things that 'Man Seeking Woman' absolutely requires."

She gave an example from an upcoming episode of Season 2 (which airs 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays on FXX):

"I improvised an entire scene with a 2007 Saturn car that was blinking its lights and honking at me but not saying human words. I had to believe as if I was meeting my brother's girlfriend for the first time, who is a very safe and reliable choice but perhaps a little boring and hard to relate to." (Yet another of "Man Seeking Woman's" surreal metaphors.) "In those moments, you can't prepare for that scene. You can't imagine how you might feel sitting in front of a car and talking to it. I mean, there wasn't a class at Northwestern about how to act with an automobile.

"But that's where improv training becomes so clutch. It's like, OK: behave honestly in imaginary circumstances. And that's where this show really shines — we stay super-grounded when the heightened scenario is to the nth degree."

From the outside, her character "is the most successful person," Lower said, "but as you get to see in the episodes from her perspective, she becomes incredibly vulnerable and unsure of what to do with herself. I think this season goes even further in that direction. She seems very out of her element and devil may care and it's new for her. And I think it's important to see female characters become a bit untethered."

Later this season her character embarks on an affair with Santa Claus. "This isn't a department store Santa. It's the real guy. That's where this show grounds itself in some insane reality. It's actually Santa who is actually married to Mrs. Claus and lives in the North Pole with actual reindeer, which we shot with."

The show, Lower said, "definitely feels like a fantasy rom-com with a sci-fi element. I love that about it. But I also think the show is very sincere, even though it's so odd. It's sincere about the desire to connect with another person and the chasms that open up when you try to do that. It's an interpretation of how we all feel when we're alone, searching for love, falling in love, losing love. How isolating it can feel to navigate love."

Lower can also be seen in the Tiny Fey-Amy Poehler comedy "Sisters" as a snooty home buyer. "Santino Fontana and I play this young, yuppie couple who are very judgmental. We have horrible names! We're called Mr. and Mrs. Geernt. So we have a couple scenes with Amy and Tina, which was an amazing treat. Those two women are my heroes. Amy gave me a big hug the first time she met me and I was blown away by how much fun they were having together. I think it's fun to see women behaving poorly, and they totally do that in this movie."

Lower, who was an art major in college, has other projects in the pipeline. She's working on a semi-autobiographical screenplay. "I'm writing about my experience as a face painter, traveling around the Midwest in the summertime with my mother. So a lot of the movie takes place in Chicago." She is also illustrating a children's book.

And she stars in the forthcoming post-apocalyptic indie thriller "Domain."

"The writer-director (Nathaniel Atcheson) saw me in 'Man Seeking Woman' and hired me to do this film. And then he just got hired as one of the editors on 'Man Seeking Woman.' I love that," she said. "I love how small the world is."

nmetz@tribpub.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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