Theater review: Second City, 'Barack Stars: The Wrath of Rahm' at Woolly Mammoth
By Nelson Pressley
Saturday, February 13, 2010
You don't get a ton of President Obama material with "Barack Stars," the Second City sendup that's back for a second term at Woolly Mammoth after an extended run last summer. And even when he's there, the company seems to go in more for Obama adoration. Though it does mock its loony fringes; a characteristically inspiring speech even draws applause from a giant man-eating insect, clapping with its tiny green forearms.
That makes the agreeable "Barack Stars" more easygoing than hard-hitting, yet there are instances when the famed comedy ensemble taps into the outrage that political satire calls for in every season. Take the slippery slope of apologies offered by a politician with chronic foot-in-mouth disease: Offensive utterance is never more than a sound bite away, and the outrages cascade with terrific timing. The bit is cinched with a song by the ensemble's three women, slinging crude lyrics at the parade of shamed names.
Even better is the laid-back repartee among three detainees idling at Gitmo, with company members Sam Richardson, Tim Sniffen and Seth Weitberg -- each sporting hard-to-pin-down accents -- wryly shooting the breeze on such laughing matters as torture and deportation. The consistently witty bit is punctuated by quick interludes of a cappella harmonizing, as the prisoners have formed a jolly singing group known as Habeas Chorus.
The subtitle of "Barack Stars" is "The Wrath of Rahm," and Weitberg's explosive, foul-mouthed take on Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is the show's comic fail-safe. "Four feet of fury," goes one billing of Weitberg's ruthless impersonation; when he says to Sarah Palin, "I will take your glasses and eat them," that's prelude to worse and funnier threats, political bullying being the stock in trade of this bare-knuckle characterization.
The show is a professional job, peppered with well-timed potshots that often take less than 20 seconds. Low blows are delivered to such sitting ducks as Tiger Woods, teachers' pay and even abortion. That last prickly topic finds the troupe at its most economical: The one-liner was far shorter than the laughter that followed it.
Playing Obama in several sketches, Richardson toys with sermonizing cadences -- even the staff is addressed in well-crafted speeches -- and finds an instant or two to tap into the president's unbridled side. (Hmm, what comic rewards might be discovered if the show followed that path a little further?) Sniffen turns out to have an excellent deadpan delivery that pays dividends as Abraham Lincoln, of all people, while the tightly wired Weitberg seems funny no matter what he's doing.
For dessert, the company offers small but satisfying servings of improvisation. At Thursday's opening performance, Brooke Bagnall and Lilly Allison played shady undercover operatives connecting the dots diabolically linking one of them to "Jersey Shore." That topic was supplied by the audience, which also came up with key words for a debate about pulchritudinous architecture micturating -- words that were kept secret from debaters Weitberg and Bagnall. The comic tension was sweet as the performers ad-libbed toward a solution to that bizarre puzzle, and one lesson grew clear: You never want to get into a game of high-stakes charades against these guys.
By Second City. Directed by Marc Warzecha. Set design, Sean Joseph Urbantke; musical director, Bryan Dunn. With Abby McEnany. About two hours.