Remember that now-classic line from Jerry Maguire?
“You had me from hello!”
That’s how the audience felt about one minute into The Second City’s new production Let Them East Chaos, onstage at the hip, industrial Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in downtown D.C.
The fast-moving, side-splitting show, directed by Billy Bungeroth, doesn’t have a plotline, per se, but its seasoned five-member ensemble (Travis Turner, Adam Peacock, Kevin Sciretta, Holly Laurent, and Niccole Thurman) plot to tickle your funny bone every way possible.
Six members, if you count Musical Director Vinnie Pillarella, seen at the edge of the stage throughout the production, playing instruments and manipulating the soundboard to create bizarre sound effects.
The ensembles’ expertise at acting and improv is seamless and pitch perfect.
The show is composed of short vignettes, some of which come and go quickly. The actors return to a few situations and characters throughout the show, building on previous scenes.
Threaded throughout the show are unexpected snatches of beautifully delivered songs and seemingly spontaneous dances.
The routines are as timely as today’s 6 o’clock news, yet some scenarios would have played well back in 1959, when The Second City began as a small Chicago cabaret.
Or, perhaps 35 years ago, during Woolly Mammoth’s first season.
This is Second City’s sixth production staged at Woolly Mammoth.
Many of America’s most beloved comedic characters from the past six decades are Second City alums. Hit movies and TV shows from the Kennedy era on through the Obama administration have showcased Second City’s finest: Joan Rivers, Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Martin Short, Anne Meara, and Jerry Stiller (but not their son, Ben Stiller), the list goes on.
Niccole Thurman opened the show – and had the audience screaming with laughter. Pausing, she bent over and asked a couple in the front row their relationship to each other.
“We are the world to each other,” replied one man. His partner, another male, nodded enthusiastically.
“What are your names?” she asked.
“Art and Jim,” was the response.
“Hmmmm. Art and gym. Those were my favorite classes in high school,” she said, beginning a riff.
Thurman learned they’d been together for 28 years.
The audience applauded loudly. Screamed. Hooted. And stomped.
Loud enough for the Supreme Court justices, just a few blocks away, to hear.
Moments later, Holly Laurent, in character, noted she and her husband had been together 28 years. “28 years” popped up a few more times during the show.
In another scene, lasting less than a breathtaking minute, two men (Adam Peacock and Kevin Sciretta) are drunk and snorting coke.
They quickly hide it when they hear their boss approaching.
Travis Turner, who is African American, rushes onstage. He complains that someone has just climbed over the fence at his house.
“You better take care of it now,” he says and storms off.
“Yes, Mr. President,” they say.
The audience howled, but the next scene was already underway. Everyone had to grab a breath before laughing again.
Turner had another line earlier in the play that invited both fleeting laughter and sobering introspection.
Looking angelic, Turner said one thing you don’t hear often from guys like him is … “Nice to see you officer!”
Depending upon the scenario, the actors spoke flawlessly in a variety of accents and dialects. Sometimes they time-traveled to the site of long ago wars.
Yet, some wars happen every day.
One poignant scene involved a high school bully (Adam Peacock) who is harassing another student on Facebook. He’s stolen the other student’s lunch money “because he’s fat and doesn’t need to eat!”
It turns out the bully is deaf, and has, himself, been bullied.
He and his guidance counselor communicate by alternatively shouting at each other, in sotto voce, and in sign language. The house went quiet.
In another scene, lasting about 30 seconds, which might favor Dan Snyder’s stubborn stance to change the name of the Redskins, the five characters hold a press conference to giddily announce a new name for the team – a marketing spin on a cuddly little bear. It turns out to be even worse than the original.
The stage set served as a foil for the cast’s manic entrances and egresses – on several levels.
Three silo-like towers rose from the rear of the stage, each pieced with window frames. A second-story catwalk linked two of the towers stage left.
About ten feet up, a giant beach ball was smashed between two towers stage right. This oddity served as a screen for a variety of unique special effects all through the show. At one point Thurman delivered a speech in unison with her magnified “twin” up on the ball.
The towers also served as rounded screens for various lighting effects. The music and sound effects throughout the show rocked the house. Kudos to Set and Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and to Pillarella.
The actors’ amazingly fast changes of costume are a credit to the backstage work of Laura Hum and her crew, and the nimble fingers of the cast. The show was written by Steve Waltien, who seems to provide new material daily – if not hourly.
Come see the show to laugh yourself silly and to later boast you saw these someday famous Second City stars “onstage at Woolly Mammoth way back in 2015.”
Who knows? Though there’s more than enough jokers running for president in 2016 – you can bet at least two of these laugh-meisters will be on the ticket by 2028.
Scene stealer: Ensemble member Travis Turner in his wheel-y good star turn as a leggy, short-skirted waitress on roller skates.
Running Time: About 2 hours 10 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.
Cast members are also teaching improv classes for beginners, July 15 – 17th; and for actors, July 22 – 24th. For information or to register, visit here.