Second City: 3rd time’s the charmer
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011
Whether they are crooning a love ballad to Chipotle's burritos or asking the essential cosmic questions, such as "How come all the addicts on 'Intervention' have better apartments than me?," the irreverent invaders from Chicago's Second City are hitting so many comic nails on the head they could be up on the stage assembling a McMansion.
Of all the satirical revues that Woolly Mammoth Theatre has been host to over the years, this visit by the Second City is, hands down, the funniest. It was only two years ago that several members of this celebrated comedy collective descended on Woolly for an evening that was, well, a tickle in a very minor key. That show, "Barack Stars," felt as if it were trying too hard not to offend, and the follow-up last year, "A Girl's Guide to Washington Politics," was received in these pages with even less enthusiasm.
Now the troupe comes majorly roaring back, with a new cast, far more imaginatively cutting material - and even a niftier title. "Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies" effectively demonstrates why this troupe is a veritable Comstock Lode of comic ingenuity, the uproarious mining operation that over the years produced the likes of Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert.
It remains to be seen if the next breakout star will be culled from the ranks of this traveling cast, but the six performers - James T. Alfred, Aaron Bliden, Jessica Frances Dukes, Maribeth Monroe, Scott Montgomery and Travis Turner - render the jokes with an infectious, carbonated company esprit. Dukes, who also happens to be a Woolly company member, showed off her sketch-
comedy chops last season in "Booty Candy," Robert O'Hara's pungent set of short takes on racial and sexual identity. Here, she's been absorbed seamlessly into the Second City aesthetic by director Billy Bungeroth.
Dukes gets a juicy solo toward the end of the first hour of "Spoiler Alert" in which she sings to the heavens about the questions that nag at her, such as the aforementioned housing inequities exposed by watching reality shows on A&E. (She also searches for the meaning in our endless award-show tributes to a higher power: "If Jesus doesn't sing on your album," she warbles, "why are you thanking him for your Grammy?")
Yes, spoiler alerts probably should be inserted into an assessment of "Spoiler Alert," but there's more spiky amusement in this show than could ever be spoiled here. Perhaps this production is more effective because the troupe is getting to know the territory: It feels as if Second City has stopped trying to figure out what makes Washington laugh and is just trotting out its strongest stuff.
The two-hour show - whose frame, albeit wafer-thin, plays with permutations of the idea of a fait accompli - exhibits some of its most successful moments when it's having fun at the expense of the company's native city. A skit, for instance, in which racial tensions erupt in a Chicago living room between guys who root for the Cubs and those who support the White Sox proves to be a sharp way to send up the city's class and racial divisions. (The District may not have baseball teams to duel over, but it's surely conversant with racial sensitivity.)
The Windy City antics are easily translatable, too, as in a sketch by Bliden and Montgomery that mocks those late-night commercials on local TV featuring amateur pitchmen making really awful puns.
The talents of the six comic actors conform to a satisfying spectrum. Bliden and Alfred create a memorable pair of characters in a smart sketch about pro-basketball hangers-on; the payoff is remarkable in Montgomery's portrayal of a TSA officer with an alarming memory; Monroe confers an ironic sophistication on a variety of sardonic turns; and whether he's playing rousing preacher or formidable mother, Turner is a galvanizing source of hilarity.
I'm sure there are weak spots in "Spoiler Alert," but I was too charmed to pay them much heed. Please, Second City, do make yourself at home.
Non-spoiler alerts for ‘Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies’
By Maura Judkis
Friday, Dec. 2, 2011
For a show called “Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies,” cast members are remarkably tight-lipped. You won’t get any additional spoilers from the cast of the Second City show before the Chicago comedy troupe begins its D.C. run Tuesday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
“I am such a big fan of the show,” says Maribeth Monroe, a Second City company member. “And if I reveal too much about it, it would take away from the audience’s experience.”
“I feel like I’m going to say something wrong on that one,” says Jessica Frances Dukes, a Woolly Mammoth company member who is joining the Second City cast, when asked for just a teeny-tiny kernel of another spoiler.
Despite the morbid title, “Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies” won’t be a total blood bath. The show is a black comedy that brings out the hilarity in our current national state of gloom. Written after two longtime fixtures of the Second City company passed away, it’s a wry look at mortality and a celebration of underdogs — and it speaks directly to audiences who have spent the past year suffering, whether at the hands of the economy or just fate.
“It’s really beautiful, in a way that I haven’t experienced a Second City show before,” Monroe says. “There’s things that the show gets away with that it [should] never really get away with.”
“I don’t want to give too much away.”
Non-spoiler 1: Not everybody actually dies. “There is a lot of death in the show,” Monroe says. “I can’t say that everybody dies in the show, but I can guarantee that there will be enough to justify the title.” She says that some of the deaths are gruesome — “there are definitely some horror theater, horror movie elements” — but not the kind of blood-drenching stuff that the audience will need to wear ponchos. “One of the deaths has caused people to leave the theater,” she says. “Me personally, as an actress, seeing what provoked people — I would not, but it is going to affect the audience.”
Non-spoiler 2: The world ends. It’s just in one sketch, though. The show is a collection of skits, with the five cast members playing more than 12 roles each. The world’s end isn’t much of a spoiler because Woolly Mammoth’s season is apocalypse-themed. Still, this sketch, performed by Dukes, evokes the same existential questions asked by Lars von Trier in his recent movie “Melancholia,” among them: When the destruction of the planet is imminent, will you panic or calmly await your fate?
“It’s very obvious that she’s going to go because it’s the end of the world — it’s bombs outside, the world blowing up, it’s crashing down around her,” Dukes says, “but I have some questions before I go. That’s one of my favorite moments in the show.”
Non-spoiler 3: You might get a little bit misty. After all of the aforementioned death and destruction, you might have gleaned that this show is a rather dark comedy for Second City.
“It’s beautiful and tugs at your heartstrings,” Monroe says. “I don’t think we leave the audience sad. We leave them with optimism. . . . We are exaggerating the tragedy in a comedic way.”
“It’s full of this message of live your life to the fullest, enjoy who you are, be who you are,” Dukes says. “It helped me look at death in a more positive light. It allows you to laugh. It allows you to relieve a few of your worries.”
Non-spoiler 4: You will learn about strippers and heaven. It’s still a comedy, after all. “If people have an idea of what they think heaven is, I think we will change their perspective,” Monroe says. “If anyone has ever visited a stripper, I think we will change their perspective about that as well.” No more clues from her: “That would be spoiling the non-spoiler,” she says.
Non-spoiler 5: You could become a part of the show. Second City shows aren’t conducive to shy audiences. You could be called upon at any time to participate in a sketch.
“One audience-participation sketch, the audience doesn’t even know it’s participating in,” Monroe says. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Dukes says the audience is considered an additional cast member. “There’s a line that really stuck with me: ‘We know more about you than you think we do,’ ” the actors tell the audience, she says. “This is one of those plays where no one is safe. We know you.”
Written and performed by Chicago’s the Second City. 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.