There’s not much to laugh at in politics today. Nor is it easy to make fun of diversity, gender, Putin, or Pepsi.
But that doesn’t prevent the team of talented comedians at Second City – now in their second year of partnership with the Kennedy Center – from taking the stage in this year’s world premiere of America; It’s Complicated.
The show is part of Comedy at the Kennedy Center, a seasonal celebration of laughter and levity in the nation’s capital. Tucked away in the Theater Lab, a black box stage on the Terrace level of the concert hall, this latest import from Chicago – where Second City has been a bastion of cabaret-style comedy for some 60 years – offers a merry mixture of satire and silliness.
Confusion is the hallmark of America; It’s Complicated. In today’s political and cultural climate, it’s hard to tell the difference between good and bad, up and down or even left and right.
In fact, “I bet you’re confused” is one of the first lines uttered in the show by Adam Schreck, a gleeful performer who is also one of the writers, as he explains the cross-over between radicals and conservatives as hidebound Democrats and liberal Republicans switch sides.
Elderly, ultra-conservative Democrats are bewildered by the young radicals – many of them feminists – who have not only penetrated their old boy network but seem to have taken over.
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Early Republicans are equally bewildered. Abraham Lincoln (Jordan Savusa, his pony tail tucked into a top hat) and Teddy Roosevelt (the buxom Mary Catherine Curran sporting a bushy mustache) mourn the loss of Republican ideals, such as taxing the rich and preserving the environment.
Yes, it’s confusing. And sometimes the political arguments can be a bit heavy-handed.
On the other hand, the musical numbers are hilarious. One of the best of these is a gun song. It’s a cheery musical ode to the power of weapons and the NRA, punctuated by loud bangs.
Another musical number brings down the house. It’s a skit in which all the members of the cast wear masks – giant replicas of well-known American leaders – while singing and dancing to the tune of “Send in the Clowns.”
There are send-ups of political debates, a sinister-looking Putin discussing his drinking habits and the marketing of a drink called Crystal Pepsi. Another skit tackles the topic of gender diversity and the search for appropriate pronouns.
The current decluttering craze gets its due in a sketch where Holly Walker plays Marie Kondo, urging the rest of the cast to ask, of each discardable item, “Is it woke?” Jillian Ebanks is the mom who has the guts to kick the declutterer out.
A bespectacled Cody Dove – the only member of the cast who wears a jacket and tie – is spectacularly funny as a blues-playing musician, playing a harmonica and a horn on a tour bus.
Ryan Bernier is the director and Allie Roy the stage manager who keep the action and dialogue moving at an almost staccato pace.
There are six performers and five chairs, meaning that one member of the cast is always, literally, on the run, dashing in from one of the three doors that line the set.
The doors, reminiscent of French farce, are part of an ingenious set designed by Bob Knuth, consisting of a three-part wall into which the doors are set. The wall is made up almost entirely of windows lit from behind.
At the beginning, the panes are a patriotic palette of red, white and blue, but they quickly turn into angry hues. Occasionally, they just go dark. Mary Keegan, the lighting director, has created a dazzling effect – alternating between the backlit windows and the strobe lights that literally rake the stage – that is often more dramatic than the spoken words.
And that’s a problem.
While many of the sketches are funny, some are not. This is particularly noticeable in those requiring improvisation, a skill for which Second City has long been known.
At the performance I attended, some of the audience suggestions were rejected, possibly because the cast was not capable of doing them? More problematic than the improv, though, is the fact that – perhaps in an effort to be fair to both sides of the aisle – the show has a tendency to be bland. And quite a few of the sketches are simply repackaged versions of old material, seen in previous Second City appearances.
Young people, however, love the show. And there were plenty of them in the audience that I was part of. That says a lot for this production, and for the future of theater in America.
So ‘bravo’ to all.
If satire is no longer as sharp as it once was, maybe that’s because it’s increasingly hard to find humor in a world that’s unpredictable and unprecedented.
Yes, America. It’s complicated.
Running time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
America; It’s Complicated! is part of a partnership between The Second City and The Kennedy Center. It plays through August 11, 2019 at The Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 444-1324 or go online.