Theater Review: Peter Marks on Second City's 'Barack Stars' at Woolly Mammoth

From left, Second City's Seth Weitberg, Abby McEnany, Lilly Allison, Tim Sniffen, Brooke Bagnall and Sam Richardson have some fun at Vice President Biden's expense.
From left, Second City's Seth Weitberg, Abby McEnany, Lilly Allison, Tim Sniffen, Brooke Bagnall and Sam Richardson have some fun at Vice President Biden's expense. (By Colin Hovde)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

All I can say is, thank [expletive] heaven for Rahm.

As some of the gentle political clowning of "Barack Stars" bears out, a White House absent Oval Office sex or a Dr. Strangelove type in the veep seat might not be the greatest repository of comedy gold. Saddled with the professional cool of this Obama gang, the jesters from the Second City, the celebrated Chicago satirical troupe, are still groping for withering ways to make us laugh at the new commander in chief.

Which is why we can be grateful that Rahm Emanuel is in the cross hairs of this enjoyably polished sketch-comedy revue, residing for the month at Woolly Mammoth Theatre -- a show that pings more than it zings. President Obama's volatile and, by reputation, epithet-adoring chief of staff provides the sort of sizzling personality over which a satirist can go to town. So Second City does, portraying Emanuel -- in the guise of actor Seth Weitberg -- as a wired, pint-size action hero capable of single-handedly neutralizing all of Obama's enemies. Also Harry Potter's.

His appearances prove comically electric; another such moment occurs in an inspired riff on the American troop pullout from Baghdad, which evolves into, of all things, an uproarious parody of "Dirty Dancing." Perhaps not so surprisingly, the interludes involving Obama unfold rather more dryly, as in a sketch set during a Lincoln Memorial news conference, in which the president (Sam Richardson) and the statue of Lincoln (Tim Sniffen) reveal their underlying competitiveness. (A Joe Biden song, about his sometimes unfortunate gift of gab, lands kind of dully, too.)

That the evening also includes a production number sending up the whole Messianic thing -- "It's okay," goes its "Avenue Q"-style refrain, "to be critical of Obama" -- suggests the challenging position the nation's political joke-writers find themselves. (And how Second City thinks racial guilt might be playing a part in all of this is reflected in another skit, in which the students in a predominantly white class express a terror of using the word "black" to describe a person.)

You expect a show like "Barack Stars" to have its ups and downs, and in any event, it packs a lot more wit than any episode of the past several years of "Saturday Night Live." Director Marc Warzecha seems to know that half the battle with short-form comedy is keeping things crisp and moving. So the topics -- Guantanamo, gays in the military, the stimulus package, Rod Blagojevich -- fly by merrily in songs, skits and even "Laugh-In"-esque blackout sketches.

One of the production's most provocative skits takes aim at what it portrays as a callous American tendency to whine: A passenger (Sniffen) in the back of a cab, recently laid off, complains to the driver (Richardson) about hardships, such as being forced to drink a cheaper brand of beer. The Middle Eastern driver's revelations about his own history of suffering -- and the negligible impact those make on his passenger -- are meant, it seems, to identify an ugly strain of self-absorption in our character.

The three men and three women of the cast are winning guides, and at their very best when given the opportunity to show just how smart their comedy can be. This occurs in the smattering of improvisatory segments. The funniest comes at the end of the night, in a riotous game of charades, when two of the players (Weitberg and Brooke Bagnall) must try to guess from their cast mates a series of words supplied by the audience -- while simultaneously arguing a side in a debate. At such times, "Barack Stars" shifts gleefully from parody mode into party.

Barack Stars, by the Second City. Directed by Marc Warzecha. Set, Sean Joseph Urbantke; music direction, Jesse Case. With Lilly Allison, Abby McEnany. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Aug. 2 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit or call 202-393-3939.

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