From Chicago, a comedy collective second to none

December 13, 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?”)


Second City’s traveling troupe appearing at Woolly Mammoth features, from left, Scott Montgomery, Jessica Frances Dukes, Maribeth Monroe and Travis Turner. (Michael Brosilow)

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.

Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies

written and performed by Chicago’s Second City. Directed by Billy Bungeroth. Set and lighting, Colin K. Bills; musical director, Matthew Loren Cohen; stage manager, Meghan Teal; dramaturg, John M. Baker. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Jan. 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.


Aaron Bliden, Scott Montgomery, James T. Alfred, and Travis Turner in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's production of "Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies." (Michael Brosilow)

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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