Second City is in denial. Donald Trump is our president, and along with that comes a host of issues regarding race, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and police brutality, among other things. The cast of the brand-new yet already outdated main-stage revue Dream Freaks Fall From Space tackle these loaded topics by mentioning them, then moving right along. And speaking of denial, scenes break one of the most fundamental rules of improvisation—embody the spirit of “yes, and . . . ” to complement your partner onstage. Here instead actors deny ideas with “What are you talking about?” Second City is the tentpole of Chicago comedy for the rest of the country, but Dream Freaks feels like it was concocted in an intermediate-level improv class where mere nods get laughs and politics get skewered with Pixy Stix.
Let’s start with the brightest of beacons, President-in-name-only Trump. Right before intermission, the cast members don Trump masks and shimmy their way onto the stage to Judy Collins’s “Send in the Clowns.” For, you see, Trump is a clown, a horrible president who is roasted by this show with insults ranging from “he sucks” to “he really sucks.” Tyler Davis sings a hopeful love song with the caveat that his feelings will change if his beloved voted for Trump. When the men in the cast catcall the women, one woman responds, “How presidential!” Blackout.
These finger taps on Trump and other hot buttons rarely develop any further. Tien Tran has a sweet voice, and she’s commited to every scene she’s in, but her song “Maybe Your Baby Is Gay” doesn’t move beyond the title joke, which is just one of plenty at the expense of white people. Sure, white people are bland and naive—how about tackling their willful blindness and myopia? Instead, female orgasms and Waldo (the picture-book character from what now feels like the enlightened year 1986) take the spotlight.
On opening night, the closest Dream Freaks came to anything surprising was in a scene where Nate Varrone plays a detective on the hunt for a jewel thief played by Davis. As Varrone asked a woman in the audience questions about the aforementioned thief, Davis, in the background, mimed the responses he sought. How had she not seen this deviant? Davis made the “sleep” gesture. Later, when Varrone asked the woman what type of chicken she’d been eating at the time, Davis pointed to his arm, and rather than saying “dark,” she replied “black.” Davis nearly collapsed onstage. Varrone just told her she was wrong.
In improv comedy nobody is wrong. Denying an idea is the first step toward a flop of a bit, and Dream Freaks lives in denial. In an improvised scene that began with the suggestion of “earrings,” Ryan Asher walked out and asked Varrone if she could get her baby’s ears pierced. Nope, Varrone replied—this was a place that only inserted gauges. Another sketch took place in a postapocalyptic wasteland where a few survivors discussed pragmatic solutions to food shortage and dirty water as Varrone—well, it was hard to tell just what he was supposed to be doing. But he had a leather jacket, a torn yellow shirt, and a gun down his pants he used to shoot one of the others before denying it—no, he hadn’t.
There’s also a running gag that begins with the cast lip-syncing to Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park”; when they get to “I think it was the Fourth of July,” they’re interrupted by Asher, who says it was actually the fifth. Other interruptions in the same vein follow: Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September”—wait, it was actually October! A conceit this slight hardly merits a return, much less one leading back to the fifth of July.
Bits that were more interactive fared far better. In what was the highlight, Tran and Jeffrey Murdoch rushed into the audience to test the hypothesis that all people are connected via six degrees of separation. They started with a man whose favorite actor was Chris Pratt, then asked for others with an affinity for Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, then questioned another volunteer about a different topic, and so forth for roughly five degrees until a woman said her favorite movie was Forrest Gump—which also happened to be the first audience member’s fave.
This synchronous moment captured just what was missing throughout the evening: for all too much of its two-hour running time, Dream Freaks refuses to embrace the unexpected, instead remaining only orange-skin-deep. Trump sucks, yes, and . . . now what? v