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Theater Review: “Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies” at Woolly Mammoth

Chicago-based comedy troupe Second City partners with the theater for the third time in this darkly funny yet uneven production.

From left, Scott Montgomery, Aaron Bliden, Travis Turner, Jessica Frances Dukes, Maribeth Monroe, and James T. Alfred in Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies. Photograph by Michael Brosilow.

☆☆ ½ out of four

When faced with her impending doom in the first act of Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies, Woolly Mammoth company member Jessica Frances Dukes has a few important final questions, as any of us might. Why is it, she poses in song, that in movies people always yell, “Someone call an ambulance!” instead of just calling one themselves? And what exactly would happen if we didn’t power down our electronic devices as our plane prepared for takeoff? Such pressing ponderings fit right into the fate-and-death-themed collaborative show between Woolly and Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The scene is sharp, funny, timely, and evident of how good the production could be if not for the dark comedy’s strangely uneven tone and only partly tapped potential. It’s certainly not for lack of trying: An enthusiastic cast, some crowd-pleasing (and crowd-involving) improv, and a promising premise work well. It’s just that for a show wrapped up in mortality, the performance could use a more consistent pulse.

Woolly’s third collaboration with the comedic powerhouse Second City (following Barack Stars and A Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics) aims to explore the theater company’s season-long question: Does our civilization have an expiration date? All signs point to the affirmative here in a collection of skits (directed by Billy Bungeroth) loosely focused on death, destruction, fear, and fate. Audience members get a pretty good idea of Woolly’s answer to the doomsday query as soon as they walk in the door. Chairs, programs, carpets, and any other flat surfaces the company could reach are plastered in frightening factoids ranging from the number of germs festering per square inch of carpet (200,000, apparently) to the approximate number of people killed by farm animals in the US annually (40, according to the National Safety Council). Even the ladies’ room mirror is scrawled with a reminder of some scary strains of E. coli we’re helpless to combat. The stark, blood-splattered set covered in pieces of rusty blades and jagged glass also acts as a none-too-subtle reinforcement of the overall message. Unfortunately, the production itself never quite lives up to its apocalyptic atmosphere. The action includes the requisite visits to heaven, run-ins with God, and gory gags that come with the subject matter, along with a handful of unrelated yet entertaining sketches—but save for a few exceptional scenes, the sometimes-R-rated comedy achieves very little of the social commentary or criticism its elaborate setup would lead you to expect. Dramatic acting interspersed with silly sketches doesn’t feel poignant or edgy so much as uncomfortable and out-of-nowhere.

Despite these letdowns, the talented six-person cast is bright enough to outshine many of the material’s missteps and make the show enjoyable. Dukes, the cast’s only Woolly Mammoth company member, stands out in her scenes, along with the delightfully gangly Scott Montgomery. Other players also put their skills at physical humor, bizarre characterization, and satirical song to good use, all offering their own memorable scenes. As is often the case with these types of performances, the actors really hit their stride with improvisation and jokes that let the audience join in on the fun. In a production filled with warnings of ever-approaching danger, audience members seated in the first few rows will find themselves in the most peril.

For all our current cable news paranoia about shark attacks, exotic killer bee invasions, dueling governments, tanking economies, and melting ice caps, Spoiler makes very little mention of politics and leaves a remarkable number of current events unskewered. Whether this is intentional or a missed opportunity is unclear, but when references do get specific, they might go too deep (as a Chicago native, I found the comparisons between Cubs and White Sox fans and other Chicago-centric shout-outs hilarious, but those less familiar with the Windy City might miss a few jokes). Even so, the ultimately entertaining show delivers laughs and polish (all those interesting stats might be reason alone to check it out), though the people behind the show should know a little more balance is nothing to be afraid of.

Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies is playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through January 8. Tickets ($30 and up) are available through Woolly Mammoth’s Web site.