Chicago Theater Review: GASLIGHT DISTRICT (The Second City e.t.c.’s 42nd Revue at Piper’s Alley)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 7, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


It’s easy to think that humor is subjective — until an entire audience’s spontaneous guffaw undermines any such abstraction. Often enough, thats the situation in Second City e.t.c.’s 42nd revue. In the bilious realm known as Gaslight District, a customer can humiliatingly get the wrong kind of coffee roast; an Office Depot clerk can dream of being Beyoncé’s backup dancer — and just miss working for Paula Abdul by one inconvenient phone call; or, in the evening’s cleverest conceit, a player can step out of a scene to comment on its subtext, then suddenly find himself locked out, trapped in an alternative universe of empty apostrophes.

Welcome to the hit-or-miss pranking of six jesters at Piper’s Alley: Emily Fightmaster, Sayjal Joshi, Katie Kershaw, Andrew Knox, Alan Linic and Jasbir Singh Vazquez. As they enter different doors, each is introduced to the audience by a generic label proclaiming their type-casting or role reversal (“nerdy” Linic, “ethnically ambiguous” Joshi, etc.). True to these disclaimers, the comedy they dole out is more character-driven than not and comparatively light on sight gags or running jokes.

Also, it’s all over the satirical map. It even makes time for serious stuff, like Joshi’s irritatingly perky depiction of a federal flunky on her first day of deporting loyal non-Americans. The scene sobers up fast as this ICE bureaucrat encounters a sad-eyed non-citizen who wants to be deported to join the brother who just was.

Second City used to have the comparatively innocent fun of mocking the moment. But, in our slippery world of fake news (and much more), that bedrock is crumbling. Still they make room for reality: Three smug Germans lambaste America for our lack of imagination in reinventing the Nazis and for not refusing to learn from them how stupid it is to build a wall. Reversing expectations (the essence of humor’s devilish rip currents), a father berates his son for not crying after he lost the game.

Attacking actuality, a very insecure Donald Trump (Knox) is contrasted with clueless Democrats unable to seize the day and make a plan. A hymn to guns takes the NRA over its own cliff. Determinedly ignorant since 2016’s triumph of ignorance and resentment, a grizzled Rip Van Winkle (Knox again) opts out of current events — as, likewise, The Second City must sometimes wish they could.

But then there’s “alternative” spoofery, like the strategic, even splendid, moments when the comics step into a “scene hole,” making literal a plot device that never gets sufficiently questioned. You see similarly disruptive playfulness in an elaborately extended improv section: It begins as an audience member is brought on stage to join a weird support group of Uber ridesharers. That morphs into clever riffs in which audience suggestions get translated into diametrically different “breaking news” stories from Fox, NPR and MSNBC. Even more absurd are variations on the theme of a sleepy high school hall monitor being punked by kids in the corridor. We also learn that, more than for most “end zones,” a hospice needs high spirits.

Amid the esoterica, Ms. Fightmaster has and shares musical fun as “Gender Alien from the Planet Dildo” (you can easily guess the rest). Vazguez is equally deft as a chameleon-like voice-over expert delivering unctuous sincerity with phony passion, each a different but bizarrely convincing voice. Other moving targets include second thoughts on first marriages, the unexamined antics of baseball pitchers and those visits to the mound, and, in the conclusion, a ballad (“Hasta Luego” beautifully opened by Vazguez) that tries to calm down the craziness that came before.

Happily, our Second Citizens write a lot of reality checks and very few bounce. As they put it, “the truth isn’t just out there, it’s waaaay out there.” Telling it can only shame the Devil (fill in that blank).

photos by Timothy M. Schmidt
and Todd Rosenberg

Gaslight District
The Second City e.t.c.’s 42nd Revue
Piper’s Alley, 230 W North Ave
Thurs at 8; Fri & Sat at 8 and 11; Sun at 7
ends December, 2018
for tickets, call 312-337-3992
or visit Second City

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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