Those who think of Chicago-based improv troupe The Second City as nothing but overpriced comedy workshops and “Saturday Night Live” auditions will be in for a strange awakening when they walk into Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies.
A collaboration between the 52-year old sketch maestros and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the scattershot production does have some elements one would expect from its pedigree: an Obama impersonator; characters with silly voices; easy pop-culture references; an overabundance of Chicago-centric humor; half-hearted audience participation. But it turns out director Billy Bungeroth and dramaturg John M. Baker are after something else: an independent piece that’s darker, stranger and of its own mind.
The first act features an eccentric mishmash of sketches, most in the traditional mold, with a setup, a basic joke and extended, bizarre riffs on top of that joke. The second act is a more transparent attempt to ground the whole endeavor into the fatalist theme promised by the title. It still features sketches, but they double back on characters and jokes from the first act before culminating in an extended vision of Heaven. And sometimes, as in a plane-set sketch that seems ripped straight from “Melancholia,” the cast and crew want us to stop laughing and get all serious when confronted with deep, uncomfortable truths about our mortality.
Of the six-member cast, only two are actual Second City alumni: Maribeth Monroe, an energetic performer and the ensemble’s biggest name (she’s currently starring on Comedy Central’s “Workaholics”), and Scott Montgomery, who does a mean pervert-TSA-agent-by-way-of-Alan-Alda. The other four, despite lacking a background in Midwest-area improvisational theater, do quite well for themselves. James T. Alfred, though his Obama is oddly Southern-accented, has a presence that is at once both commanding and comedic. Aaron Bliden has an amiable, fresh charisma, and Travis Turner shows off great range by playing a transvestite, a preacher and a loudmouth from Chicago’s South Side, among other roles.
The standout cast member is Woolly Company member Jessica Frances Dukes, a familiar face to DC theatergoers from her recent appearances in Bootycandy and In The Next Room or the vibrator play, among others. Dukes slips in and out of various character types with ease, and her best creations — a student trying to guess the reason her teacher’s boyfriend left her, a chain-smoking gambler who meets God without realizing it — project a wide-eyed vulnerability even as they nail each successive punchline.
If only the rest of Everybody Dies executed its theme as well as Dukes’ performance. The show’s sketches are not as interconnected as the producers would like you to believe. Yes, things become progressively darker over time, with more gruesome deaths. But Everybody Dies is too absurdist to say anything truly profound about the nature of fate, in much the same way that “Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life,” too busy putting on elaborate musical numbers about Catholic birth rates, could barely pretend to be about its titular existential quest.
The show is best when it’s at its weirdest: an intimate moment between a man and his burrito, a strip tease starring someone who may or may not be our President, an endearingly goofy pickup game pitting two idealistic dolts against Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. How do these standout bits fit into the Woolly Mammoth Company’s season theme, “Does our civilization have an expiration date?” (That theme, by the way, seems like entirely the wrong question; what with the inevitable end of the universe and all, the demise of mere civilization is a cosmic afterthought. A better prompt might have been: “When is our civilization’s expiration date?”) Well, they don’t… not really.
Does this mean the show fails? Again, not really. Everybody Dies is neither as funny as a Second City show ought to be nor as profound as it wants to be, but it is a singularly unique theater experience. And we could all use one of those before (spoiler alert) we die.
Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies runs thru Jan 8, 2011 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC.
Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies
Written & Performed by Chicago’s The Second City
Directed by Billy Bungeroth
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with intermission