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.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf

     Neil was interested in seeing Tracy Lettts’ Mary Page Marlowe (MPM) because it was premiering at Steppenwolf and we wanted a reason to visit Chicago; I was interested after I read a rave in The New York Times (yes, bloggers can be review whores).  Letts has deservedly earned a reputation as a major American dramatist and he’s focused on the middle of the country with intelligent, quirky characters finding themselves in situations that begin mundanely and turn horrific.  With Superior Donuts (2008) and now MPM, he’s examining the details of ordinary lives, the type of people watching the show or people that viewers know.

     Baby boomer Mary Page Marlowe, living in Dayton and then Lexington, leads a life that many women of her generation did (and do) in being raised by parents who came of age before World War II, listened to records and thought about boys in the ‘50s, graduated from college in the ‘60s, got married and worked professionally, had a family, divorced, and I won’t go on from there because I don’t want to spoil the story, which depends on its specific details and the order of their revelation.  Although these were turbulent times that changed the culture in the U.S., MPM is not a leader in any movement.  She’s an ordinary middle-class woman and this frustrates her, along with her tacitly acknowledged Catholic guilt, resulting in behavior she regrets.

Madeline Weinstein, Jack Edwards and Rebecca Spence
     Letts’ coup de theatre is to portray scenes from her life out of chronological order so that the audience has clues to figure out MPM’s personality and motivations and also renders what could be commonplace when told like an obituary as various startling and defining moments.  Director Anna D. Shapiro has cast six actresses as Mary over the decades.  Rebecca Spence and Blair Brown are standouts in the role.  I’d like to have seen more of Spence, but the next scene she might have played chronologically was cast with another actress.  I wish we could have seen Carrie Coon since she was fierce in Gone Girl (2014), but her understudy was playing instead and was very good, though her wigs looked like wigs.  

     All of the actors in the large cast performed beautifully, especially newcomer Madeline Weinstein as Mary’s daughter Wendy and the veteran Steppenwolf member Alan Wilder as Mary’s final husband.  Without ever underlining, the production demonstrates the time periods easily through Todd Rosenthal’s set design and Linda Roethke’s costumes.  Large screen projections were integral to the scene changes (as they were in the Shaw’s production of Sweet Charity last year), but Sven Ortel’s are decorative and thematic, rather than being descriptive.

The Final Scene with Blair Brown
     The one problem with the performance was its ending.  Rather than a dramatic climax, though there were fraught confrontations earlier, the final moment is one of quiet epiphany.  However, there wasn’t an arresting conclusion with lighting or sound to draw the applause it deserved.  An understated, eloquent play was left hanging and I think Shapiro needs to re-think the moments after the final image so that the audience can react properly.

MPM runs through June 5, 2016.