A Girl's Guide to Washington Politics


Editorial Review

'A Girl's Guide to Washington Politics,' more insipid than inspiring

By Celia Wren
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You have to say this for "A Girl's Guide to Washington Politics," the underwhelming new satirical showcase from the Second City: Justifying the title's emphasis on the distaff side of politics, the artists have done their darnedest to cover the bases.

Token jokes about Bristol Palin and Lisa Murkowski? Check. Brief jest about Christine O'Donnell entering Slytherin, the sinister house at Hogwarts? Check. Gag about Michelle Rhee becoming chancellor of holiday elves? Check. Along with some less narrowly targeted songs and skits, the obligatory references trot dutifully into the limelight, cameos in a two-hour production that, while fitfully amusing, is far tamer and less inspired than, say, a typical 10-minute segment on "The Colbert Report."

The pedigree of "Girl's Guide," running at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through Jan. 9, only ratchets up the disappointment factor: The Second City is, of course, the storied improvisational comedy troupe that, since its founding in Chicago in 1959, has launched scores of famous talents, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert among them. Second City's "Barack Stars: The Wrath of Rahm" previously did two stints at Woolly, and on the heels of that success, "Girl's Guide" has (according to a press release) racked up the highest advance sales in Woolly's history. The buzz has been such that Dianne Feinstein, Olympia Snowe and 10 other female senators attended one of the initial performances last week.

In its favor, the show boasts a talented, high-energy cast. Performers Joey Bland, Lili-Anne Brown, Brooke Breit, Lori McClain and Rebecca Sohn are so creative and quick-witted that they can generate a mini-musical on the fly, based on audience suggestions. (At the Sunday matinee, theatergoers proposed, and received, an operetta involving Adrian Fenty, education and the National Zoo. The musical was neither funny nor politically pointed, but give the team a break - devising an instant show-tune package is no easy task.)

Equipped with fine comic timing, the actors breeze through their topical shtick (punctuated by cabaret-style crooning by musical director Diana Lawrence at a keyboard). A lot of the boldface-name-themed wisecracks are so fleeting as to seem perfunctory, but some longer sequences are more satisfying. McClain does a mildly droll sendup of Nancy Pelosi: Pontificating in a tone of doddering calm, barely moving her facial muscles, this version of the soon-to-be ex-speaker of the House confesses to breakfasting on Haagen-Dazs and Red Bull and quips that John Boehner "thinks artificial tanning is a form of cardio." At another point, Bland poses as an eager-to-please Todd Palin desperately seeking to engage someone - anyone! - in a friendly, apolitical conversation. "This is Todd Palin going rogue!" he crows after chitchatting with an audience member about snowboarding and the weather.

But the show is best when it strays further from the headlines, conjuring up zany personalities and situations. Breit is richly diverting as a gravelly voiced lifestyle guru who works herself up to moments of screeching enthusiasm (her philosophy: be a cheapskate). And Brown is priceless as a pop singer who's a domineering flirt, swanning down an aisle to badger a male audience member until he agrees he'd like - in theory - to drink her bath water.

In another of the more compelling skits, a mustache-sporting Brown impersonates a monomaniacal third-world dictator who cheerfully confesses to drafting child soldiers and closing girls' schools, to the intense discomfort of visiting American diplomats. It's one of the production's rare forays onto the kind of dangerous turf that is stomping grounds, so often, for top-notch political satire.

In general, "Girl's Guide" sticks to safer territory. "I am not a demographic!" the cast belts in a quasi-sincere song that opens and closes the revue. For a show so ready to rebuke statistical oversimplification, though, "Girl's Guide" takes a strikingly by-the-numbers approach to its humor.

A Girl's Guide to Washington Politics by the Second City. Directed by Billy Bungeroth; set design, Klyph Stanford; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin. About 2 hours.

At Second City, girls rule

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, December 3, 2010

When famed Chicago comedy troupe Second City brought "Barack Stars" to Washington's politically wired audiences last year, timing was everything; night after night, the seats at Woolly Mammoth Theatre filled with the Who's Who of Washington, all game for a laugh at themselves and Obamamania. (Even former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, thoroughly lampooned in the show, stopped by to see it.)

Next week, Second City returns to Woolly with its cross hairs aimed squarely at this year's hot subject: the first ladies of politics, from Sarah Palin to Nancy Pelosi (and perhaps even Christine O'Donnell). All get a skewering in "A Girl's Guide to Washington Politics," which opens Wednesday.

"We started developing it before the midterm elections," writer Kate James says, by phone from Chicago. And to keep it as timely as possible, James says, they'll keep tweaking almost till the moment the actors hit the stage.

"With a Washington audience, you can't get away without playing to the top of your intelligence," adds Kelly Leonard, president of Second City, which has been the training ground for some of comedy's most revered talents, including John Belushi and Tina Fey. "We all want to deliver a smart laugh."

To do that, the writers hinged the show's 16 sketches, performed by a cast of four women and one man, not just on candidates and elections, but on the city's sexual politics - and sexual proclivities. The show's running joke is "a talking-head type" inspired by such personalities as Suze Orman, Ann Coulter and TV matchmaker Patti Stanger. (The character, James says, "has this really super strong point of view, and we're not really sure why.") Audiences can expect to see a tea party rally, and Leonard and James cautiously reveal, one sketch in which three wives whose husbands have affairs belt out a tune about the woes of being a Washington wife. (Why do we feel a rendition of "All the Single Ladies" coming on?)

While "tea party material in Chicago generally is laughed at," says Leonard, in other cities, it doesn't always go over so well. "Someone threw a piece of fruit and stormed out of the theater," he says.

In Washington, however, the company doesn't have to worry about episodes like that. It's "an audience that's used to material that's both on the left and the right," Leonard says. "We're kind of playing to a home team in Washington even though it's an away game."