War. What a riot, huh? Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I guffawed at a divergent missile shooting through some poor Baghdadi's living room, I'd be a rich man! Of course, this is only one way of finding war humorous. Perhaps the more humane, and less sadistic, way is to approach it in the method of some of our paragons of modern comedy: to mock its absurdity, to ridicule its purported-to-be mission of "liberation," and to reveal it as nothing more than a horrible travesty. The Onion, that venerable news publication, has by-and-large successfully skewered the appropriate idols of war iconography ever since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Now it's the Second City's turn.
On Sunday, April 13, legendary incubator of comedy stars The Second City, unveiled its 89th mainstage revue, "No, Seriously, We're All Gonna Die." Featuring the same cast as the previous mainstage, "Thank Heaven It Wasn't 7/11," the new revue again ventures to find humor in tragic events. But while, at least in this reviewer's opinion, the previous show's humor became badly dated as another September 11 passed and conflict with Iraq started to take shape, this production attempts to keep the humor diverse, biting, and, especially, fresh.
The show's title, as well as its promotional art, gives the impression that it is a show strictly about war. A smiling soldier reminiscient of WWII propaganda stares back at us from the poster. Yet we soon find that the show's comedic parameters stretch well beyond combat. The opening montage reveals all the ways in which life sucks, from ultra-crowded nightclubs, to the victimization of the last girl at a frat party, to a deaf guy getting his signs seriously confused. The revue shows modern American living as a series of sticky situations as race, sex, self-esteem, and, of course, the government all wait for the right moment to pull the rugs of convention out from under us.
For the most part, the revue jumps effectively from one topic to the next with a few sacred cows roasted along the way. Although there are occasional callbacks to previous material, the show mainly consists of several separate entities with each scene blacked before the next begins. This makes for an occasionally erratic, yet refreshingly varied, viewing experience.
Despite the Chicago Tribune's recent review, I did not sense much nervousness from either the cast or the audience on opening night. In fact, I thought that the most potentially nerve-wracking subjects, including Muslim-American relations and making a buck off September 11 sentimentality, made for some of the evening's best scenes. The cast seemed especially on their game in the scene immediately following the opening montage, which depicted AmeriCorps volunteers presenting instructive skits for victimized Muslims living in the Middle East. The lesson, repeated throughout: "You're not that different!"
Although some scenes fall through the cracks, the strong cast is able to turn ordinary, even weak, sketches into palatable comedic fare. A scene that is essentially a staging of the classic improv game Mr. Know-It-All is buoyed by the wit of cast members Martin Garcia and Brian Boland, who play a team of sarcastic, wedge-shaped aliens. Two small scenes, however, take the easy way out, as Garcia depicts a drug-addled and easily-skewered Liza Minnelli in one, and the much-maligned state of Indiana is given yet another pot-shot in another.
Director and Second City alumnus Dave Razowsky lends a refreshing sparseness to the show's staging. Some scenes are prop or costume-heavy, but never setpiece-heavy. As a result, the actors are able to create their own space on stage, showing-off the mime skills that are so stressed when learning improvisation. However, certain members of the capable, and often stellar, six-person cast frequently fall into familiar territory already tread thin by their roles in previous Second City shows. Martin "The Gay Guy" Garcia and David "The Black Guy" Pompeii are the worst offenders, often relying too much on the histrionics and sarcastic bitterness that comes with these respective roles.
It is no coincidence that the show's creative and comedic apex also best exemplifies the theme of tragedy permeating the commercialized confines of the American consciousness. The scene begins with Garcia (flamboyance slightly restrained) reenacting the courageous actions of Todd Beamer aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania on the morning of September 11. Garcia is soon revealed to be merely an actor playing Beamer in a big-budget Hollywood movie, with Beamer's widow, a slimy producer, and a director who used to be "Ron Jeremy's fluffer" all overseeing the shoot. Hilarity ensues as the scene of great heroism slowly transforms into a soft-core advertisement for Coke, complete with Phil Collins power ballad, and even "Let's roll!" replaced with an alternative phrase, as Cinnabon has already claimed the copyright.
Topicality has always been a hallmark of the Second City. Its members have seen it as their collective duty to wring laughs from the newspaper headlines, as painful as they often are. Although some may accuse the current cast of tiptoeing around some possibly killer parodies, they were also smart to fill their show with impressions of all of America, not just of America in "Showdown with Saddam" mode. After all, who wants to see a Freedom Fries parody four months down the road?