There’s an elephant in the room when Second City comes to DC -A Big Apple-shaped elephant. It says something when one of the best comedy troupes *outside of New York* comes to one of the best new play theaters *outside of New York*. The lobby display shows images of some Second City alumnae (and some not) now famous for “making it there” and the lobby talk is all comparisons to various NYC television properties, particularly one associated with a specific night of the week.
But once everyone gets over the collective inferiority complex, Second City’s newest import Let Them Eat Chaos elicits a hundred more laughs than you would get in as many nights watching the televised sketch comedy emanating from That City That Must Not Be Named. Unexpectedly musical, charmingly eclectic, and (pleasantly) surprisingly interwoven, Chaos feels more variety act than sketch comedy. This tack comes in handy as they not only poke fun at on topic social justice issues, but use poetry and song to implicate the audience in the perpetuation of injustice through their laughter.
As a callous, cold-hearted critic, I’m naturally indifferent toward sketch comedy and improv, since it can feel like a supper of snack food: each little bit guiltily delicious, but without the real satisfaction of a complete meal. But happily, Let Them Eat Chaos doesn’t live up to its name, and Second City has shown up with a set that has a nice emotional range, from sweet tender moments to savory world-play and spicy political commentary.
The spine of the play comes from interactions between a medical orderly and an old woman in a nursing home. Unlike some of the more tropey bits (like lonesome cowboys sitting around a fire or Disneyland character performers discussing race relations in America), these aren’t funny. Heartfelt, sure. Meaningful and sweet, even. But not particularly funny. Normally, an unfunny bit at a sketch comedy show is a poison pill, turning off the audience to the troupe; there’s nothing worse. But these didn’t feel that way. It’s only as with some chewing over the way these sketches fit together and come to a beautiful conclusion that I realize how this break from trying hard to make the audience laugh was absolutely necessary for the satisfying finish of Let Them Eat Chaos. It’s been awhile since I’ve come across a sketch or improv show that made me think this much.
Speaking of improv, Second City’s most famous aspect gets a couple of cameos in Let Them Eat Chaos, so be aware that front row seats might get you involved in the performance. These bits showed off some great talent from the cast, especially from Adam Peacock and Kevin Sciretta, whose amusing riffs from audience suggestions brought the house down. But the improv felt tacked on, like the writer/director team of Steve Waltien and Billy Bungeroth thought that a Second City show would be incomplete without it.
The other performers showed off their scripted chops, particularly Travis Turner, who also showed off spectacular physicality. His well-choreographed movements really made the slapstick elements of the piece work, but some of his best moments came in politically-charged poetry, calling out the audience for laughing at the murder of a Black child. Combined with a “First World Problem” rap duo with Kevin Sciretta, Turner’s performance was the standout of the evening.
Set and Lighting designer Colin K. Bills gets major props for setting Second City up for success. His familiarity with the space (he’s a Woolly Company member) gives him the tools to keep transitions snappy, environments varied, and levels multitudinous throughout the show. Music director Vinnie Pillarella echoes Bills’ work while apparently live-mixing just off the stage.
I wouldn’t classify Let Them Eat Chaos as a musical, but playful tunes and driving soundscapes make up a significant portion of the night. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that these actors did so well with harmonizing and vocal technique, but I nonetheless was. Pillarella has done some good work with Holly Laurent and Niccole Thurman, especially the latter, whose sharp and charming opening song set the mood nicely for the show.
When I came into Let Them Eat Chaos, I was prepared for run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, prepared to laugh a little and roll my eyes more. But it rocked me out of my comedy apathy. Let Them Eat Chaos showed me why Second City is still the biggest and best name in the comedy business, and Woolly Mammoth proved once again that they put up some of the best comedic collaborations around. Outside of New York, that is.