Admit it–we Washingtonians tend to take ourselves a bit too seriously. Sometimes we just need to be reminded: It’s summer! Time to take off that starched suit, leave that laminated ID badge at home, and relish these long, hot evenings—perhaps with an adult beverage and some belly laughs.
A hearty dose of the Second City’s excoriating wit may be just what’s needed to loosen those collars. The famed Chicago sketch comedy troupe that launched a thousand careers (including that of DC native Stephen Colbert) has taken up residence at Woolly Mammoth for a month-long run of Let Them Eat Chaos.
Created specifically for a DC audience, the show (thankfully) does not follow the over-trodden path of political satire–although they can’t help but throw a few elbows here and there. Second City focuses instead on the joys and foibles of human relationships, particularly those straddling socio-economic, age, race, and gender lines.
The result is at once thoughtful, irreverent, and, of course, hilarious. Trailer park lesbians discuss the finer points of relationships in a post-feminist era, introspective cowboys wistfully imagine what it would be like to be “really fancy” ladies, co-workers navigate the constantly evolving lexicon of racism–or who exactly is allowed to say what exactly.
The ensemble cast delivers its best in its shortest spoofs–some over so quickly the audience barely has time to guffaw. An audience favorite involving ever-more awkward encounters among perfect strangers is deliciously cringe-worthy.
Even more, Chaos’ cast shows remarkable musicality for a bunch of comedians. Accompanied by music director Vinnie Pillarella, the cast showcases a few Broadway-worthy voices and makes up a passable New Orleans brass band.
Each of the uniformly excellent five-member cast delivers standout roles. Travis Turner and Kevin Sciretta dazzle with overlapping, competing “street raps”—the former railing against the pervasive poverty and social injustices suffered by young African-American men; the latter bellyaching over the scarcity of his favorite flavor of Girl Scout cookies (“I’m so hard up, I’d even eat a Trefoil.”)
Holly Laurent shows tremendous range, morphing from a soft-spoken elderly nursing home resident to a mullet-wearing lesbian with a killer twang. And Adam Peacock nails an audacious sketch in which he plays a deaf child who is, well, an irredeemable prick.
For my money, the standout among the standouts is Niccole Thurman, whose canny delivery, open-faced incredulity, and immediate rapport with the audience is positively magnetic. Thurman’s ability to reach through the proverbial “fourth wall” makes the audience feel like part of the cast.
Scattered through the production, however, are moments when the audience is abruptly thrust back in their seats. An old-timey Keystone Cops silent movie sketch—imagine 1920s-era, billy-club-wielding police chasing a cartoon villain in circles—ends in sudden and surprising violence with the police shooting an unarmed black passerby. Turner points a finger at the audience and asks, “Why are you laughing?” Are we ashamed? Well, yes.
Calls to conscience are nothing new for Woolly Mammoth, a theater that has cast itself as an irreverent, zany forum for social and political commentary. But for Second City, this feels like something new–or at least something very timely. Woolly’s managing director Meghan Pressman notes that this collaboration—Second City’s sixth in three years—is the “Woolliest” to date. “The show goes to a place where it’s not a constant laugh riot,” she says. “There are points where it’s poignant and moving and lovely.”
Yes, but not always. Some of the show’s loose threads tie up too prettily, and the repeated message that “all that matters in the world is that you’re someone to somebody else,” feels like a Hallmark bait-and-switch.
Overall, Chaos succeeds in weaving together moments of unapologetic, uproarious laughter with those that strive—and often reach—the profound. It’s thinking-person’s comedy, and what’s better suited for a Washington audience?
And did I mention that they serve beer and wine?
The Second City’s Let Them Eat Chaos runs from July 7 to August 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Tickets cost $35 to $100.