Who Do We Think We Are? | Comedy Review
Wed Apr 18 2012
Photograph: Clayton Hauck
At the top of the Second City's new Mainstage revue, ensemble member Edgar Blackmon asks the audience to make sure their cell phones are silenced. Check them 99 times, Blackmon advises, and then once more. "Because doing something 99 times is worth doing again." It's a nod to a Second City milestone: Who Do We Think We Are?, which opened last night, is the theater's 100th Mainstage production. It's an energetic and pleasing revue bolstered by a strong cast, while unfortunately breaking little new ground. Director Matt Hovde (Rod Blagojevich Superstar!, Sky's the Limit) is more interested in celebrating the Second City mold than challenging it, and the best scenes of the night reminded me of Hovde's Studs Terkel's Not Working, a show steeped in format and tradition that was nevertheless wonderful. Who Do We Think We Are? aspires to be that good.
Some of the cracklier Act One scenes point to the upcoming election. An interracial couple (Holly Laurent and Blackmon) bickering over the validity of watching FOX News segues into a discussion over identity politics. "Conservatives love Jesus, black people love Jesus," argues Laurent in an attempt to link the two groups together. "No man, that's a different Jesus," Blackmon replies. In one particularly giddy and inventive scene, a time-traveling machine allows the cast to visit different eras in American history where it was more permissible to tell racist jokes (and note the early-’80s synth sounds that dominate this scene; credit musical director Julie B. Nichols for cranking up the noise throughout). The cast also takes aim at Etch-a-Sketch candidate Romney while envisioning Obama as the badass, chain-smoking candidate of our dreams (and ’08 memories).
But there's some plodding material straight out of the gate. A relationship scene between a drunken couple (Tim Baltz and Mary Sohn, who finally has a stage grand enough for her booming voice and tremendous physicality) is plain old filler. And only Sohn's tough-love best friend can spice up a scene between three girlfriends set inside a women's bathroom. Still, the first act goes out with a bang and sets up Act Two for a series of impressive callbacks. Ensemble member Katie Rich puts an improv scene up to the highest bidding audience member in what is the evening's most joyous and unexpected gesture (and wait until you see where the money goes) while a marvelous scene at a Bridgeport pickup bar upends gender expectations and gives Steve Waltien a nice chance to strut his stuff.
Audience interaction abounds in portions of Who Do We Think We Are?; the cast has a task on its hands in Act Two trying to negotiate drunken crowds eager for dick jokes. This happened in an improvised scene between a nun and priest with a clever premise that was nearly derailed by lame shoutouts. Sohn and Baltz, however, cranked out a beauty based on the suggestion Mike Ditka that almost felt fully scripted, and a cheerleading scene that leans heavily on the admittedly fun gimmick of Blackmon in drag manages to eke out genuine issues of aging and heartbreak. It's worth noting that Second City hires a much older cast these days compared to decades past and the experience under their belts lends gravitas to these kinds of world-weary characters.
I longed throughout for the kind of dark humor and surprises that dominated 99th revue South Side of Heaven and didn't find much here. This cast and director—and I'll reiterate my faith in their collective talents—are more interested in reminding folks that they're a badass group of improvisers who are simultaneously in tune with the theater's roots in political satire—this is, after all, an election year show. Hmm, maybe it's a dark one after all.