Good comedians have a gift for cutting to the heart of problems, and that's what happens over and over in Second City's surprising "Nothing to Lose (but Our Chains)." The brand-new show is a memoir by performer Felonious Munk, and true to the Second City brand, it's funny.
"I look like an extra in 'Tyler Perry Presents Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing,' " cracks Odinaka Ezeokoli, wearing torn denim and a backward ball cap as he plays Munk's conscience.
"Nothing to Lose" is Munk's tell-all about dealing drugs, shooting a man and serving six years in prison, and that conscience keeps popping up to contradict some of the evidence. It's serious.
That double-barreled approach makes "Nothing to Lose" arguably the finest work the busy Second City company has done in D.C. Audiences wandering in expecting comedy won't be disappointed; Munk and company occasionally take to the microphone for passages of straight-up stand-up, and they nail one-liners about bad decisions ranging from adoption matters to shooting a thief in the backside.
Not a laughing matter? Munk knows it. The consciousness in this show is ultrasharp, and nothing goes unexamined, particularly Munk's own culpability. "How ungrateful," runs a refrain that means different things at different times.
Riffing at the mic doesn't mean Munk's necessarily cracking jokes. The writing is ruthlessly confessional, and it seems so fresh that Munk pauses now and then as if he's still checking whether he wants to share some of this stuff in front of an audience. He says some rough (and apparently true) things about his mother, but then as his mom, Angela Elise, gets to push back fiercely.
The stories about his crimes and his punishment in prison are particularly gripping, in part because Munk doesn't labor to make them exciting. Swaggering with a gun, flashing wads of cash he made dealing — he just tells it, and you can picture it.
It looks like it still hurts when Munk listens to some crazy stuff said by his wildly irresponsible father, played in sketch comedy bursts by Calvin Evans. Yet the show, performed in front of a stark prison wall created by designer Colin K. Bills and in prisonlike jumpsuits by costumer Robert Croghan, is capable of absurd heights. It even bursts into song as the cast swirls around Munk bellowing, "Apologize! Apologize!"
The truth of it all starts to feel so deep, even detailing Munk among the protesters in Ferguson, Mo., that the opening-night audience responded audibly to the show's final lessons and reckonings (with many of the most potent passages going to McKenzie Chinn). "Nothing to Lose" fits the tradition of literary memoir by people atoning for Very Bad Things even while being a Second City sendup; director Anthony LeBlanc lets both tones flow freely, and incredibly, they get along.
Munk says at one point that his aim was just to become a decent person. In context, that sounds both exalted and humble. What more should any of us be? In looking at how it happened, he's made a rewardingly decent show.
Nothing to Lose (but Our Chains) written by Felonius Munk. Directed by Anthony LeBlanc. Lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design and original music, Jesse Case. About two hours. Through Dec. 31 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $49-$89, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.