Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When did Second City become so Self-Satisfied?

     In today’s marketing era, an institution is one whose brand is indestructible, no matter whether the quality has slipped.  Second City embodies this definition in its current main stage revue Fool Me Twice, Déjà Vu.  The concept was intriguing, but the execution was off-key and veered dangerously close to being amateurish.  The set-up was that one cast member was in the now while the rest of the cast was in 1991.  It was a time machine he’d invented and the others were visiting him.  It was funny and the first act’s subtext was an examination of the extent to which American life and culture had changed over the past quarter century.  The best scene involved three young mothers energetically celebrating “having it all.”  The by-products were exhilaration, entitlement, and exhaustion.

The Cast of Fool Me Twice, Déjà Vu
     The second act began as an off-kilter version of the first act’s beginning:  the Déjà Vu effect squared.  The twentysomething brother/sister behind me felt the need to point this out to each other, though it only needed explaining for the obtuse or feeble-minded.  Although the variations, especially a family brunch scene, were droll and amusing, the ensemble made the fatal mistake of breaking numerous times.  Though this can seem funny when it happens inadvertently, it became a motif where the cast members were more focused on entertaining one another and themselves than they were in pointing at truths to an audience.  It’s narcissistic – the absolute opposite intention of improvisation – and lazy, which is the worst rip-off of a paying audience by professionals.

     The fully improvised third act was sloppy.  The first game was word/sentence association and went on three times longer than its natural ending, which was a hilarious example by Jamison Webb, who was the glue that held the ensemble together.  I felt Daniel Strauss was checked out of this part.  His best moments were one line in the first act and its repeat in the second act.  Strauss broke the cardinal rule of accepting a detail given him by another cast member and going with it.  Instead, he denied it and justified this by his character’s bad memory.  I couldn’t reconcile this ‘variation’ on the orthodoxy of improv.  Paul Jurewicz worked well, but the audience
Rashawn Nadine Scott
seemed primed to see another John Belushi just because he possessed girth.  Rashawn Nadine Scott sparked in any audience interaction game, while Sarah Shook was kookily attractive, but willing to do anything for a laugh.  I liked Kelsey Kinney a lot in a long improv about Google programmers, but she kept performing the same type of character continually in the first two acts.

     None of this seemed to faze the audience, however.  They were overly conversant with the legendary past of Second City and reacted as if they were watching then in their prime.  Ten years ago or so we saw an excellent troupe exemplified by the Black Republican sketch and the ancient black grandmother giving shockingly honest advice to much younger listeners.  I don’t know what happened to those performers, but they were excellent.  I saw Paradigm Shift in ’97 (partly written by Tina Fey) and found its quick retread of part of act one in the second act and final summative moments to be startlingly fresh.  I still remember Rachel Dratch’s mother of a gargoyle.  Fool Me Twice isn’t fresh, especially in the negative stereotyping of southerners and the easy shots at straight white Anglo-Saxon males.  They could have added Jewish males in the movie business as well, but they didn’t have the guts to go quite that far.  The lack of liberal self-awareness was surprising.  In the past, the ensemble has been able to poke fun at itself, but this was not an element of this production.

     The three-generation family behind us – I figured out that the younger members were explaining what was going on to the grandmother.  How she was able to get into the performance space in her wheelchair was beyond me, but she was sandwiched in like the rest of us.  They left during the improvised set I assume because it was coarse and not very funny.

Jacob Shuda
    The musical direction was stellar and did a lot to punch up the pacing and underscore the specific scenes’ emotions.  Musical Director and pianist Jacob Shuda looked like a star when he took his bow.  The cast should take a cue from him.

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