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Something funny is going on at the soon-to-be-former Riot Act Comedy Theater, but it’s not a laughing matter.
When news broke last week that the Chinatown comedy club would be shutting its doors this weekend, General Manager Peter Bayne told Arts Desk it was a matter of finances. “The business model just hasn’t worked out financially for this space,” he said. “It wasn’t the place where you go out with your buds after work to get a beer.” When the space reopens next month, it will be called Penn Social, a “social club”—-a bar, plus some games and other entertainment—-that drops much of the comedy from the equation.
Missing from that announcement was any mention of John Xereas, a co-founder of the club who’s now saying he was forced out of the business earlier this year. In a lawsuit filed with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Xereas volleys claims that include copyright infringement, defamation, and libel against his Riot Act partners Geoffrey Dawson and Marjorie Heiss. “From the night that we opened, they had people already in place to undermine and take my position,” Xereas says.
Xereas, a mainstay of the D.C. comedy scene since the early 1990s, claims that the Riot Act trademark was stolen from him after he was frozen out. According to a complaint filed by his lawyer, Xereas maintains common law ownership of the name. (A U.S. Patent and Trademark Office application Xereas filed Jan. 13—-four days before Dawson and Heiss fired Xereas’ brother, Ted, and friend, Mike Farfel—-is currently pending.)
Xereas is also adamant that Riot Act was “about to explode” under his watch. (“We took in a million dollars from August to January,” he says.) That changed, he claims, after Dawson and Heiss removed him from day-to-day operations on January 26—-his 43rd birthday. “January was our best month. In January we did $220,000. January was the same month they got rid of me, my brother, and my other friend who were the key components,” he says.
According to a May 29 motion to dismiss the case filed by Heiss and Dawson’s lawyers, however, Xerea’s exit was “a result of fundamental disagreements” about Riot Act. “Heiss and Dawson repeatedly afforded Xereas opportunities to change what they viewed to be his ineffective and improper management practices,” the motion claims, “but he refused to do so.”
Responding to Xereas’ claims, the motion to dismiss reads, “This is a business divorce case involving a comedy club venture that failed in less than a year…Riot Act DC, LLC was quickly losing money and, in Dawson’s and Heiss’ view, Xereas was not running the day-to-day operations of the comedy club in a manner that was consistent with sound business practices or likely to lead to success.”
Neither Dawson nor Heiss nor their lawyers responded to Washington City Paper’s repeated requests for comment about the case. We’ll continue to ask them.
John Xereas’ lawsuit
Motion to dismiss