I ‘m the king of regret. You name it, I’ve got a voice inside my head telling me I should be sorry or embarrassed or guilty about it. Have I ever done anything right? Don’t bother answering. I know. The big news is that I may not be the only one in the world who feels that way. Second City’s latest main-stage revue spends a lot of time on the subject of self-subversion, and I don’t think it can be aimed at me alone. (Can it? Oh God, what if it is?)
An entertaining if not blockbusting show, Depraved New World opens with a song for the psychic saboteur in all of us: “Why can’t I turn off these voices of loneliness, fear, despair, and dread?” ask the six cast members. “The world is so filled with noises. The loudest are in my head.” They follow that up with a bit set at a corporate staff meeting where people compulsively second-guess themselves (“Nobody likes your brownies,” the office brownie queen hears herself thinking—though, as it happens, she’s right), even to the point of second-guessing the second guess.
And so it goes. Themes in Second City shows tend to be lip-service constructs. But this one is unusually persistent. One way or another, there’s a lot of secret selves here. And why not? Examining who we aren’t is a wellspring of comedy. Hell, it’s a wellspring of all art.
Still, not every secret self is out to assassinate its host ego. Some are struggling for authenticity, like that of Maleek, the pink-faced, Euro-featured biracial son who wants his proud black mom to understand that he feels funny giving public recitations of Langston Hughes poems that declare, “I am the dark-skinned brother.” Others are downright grandiose, like that of the kid—an earnest cousin of the basement dwellers in Wayne’s World—whose YouTube show on the arts of seduction and kickboxing keeps getting interrupted by his mom telling him to get ready for church. And still others are probably too well integrated for anybody’s good, like that of the creepy guy who haunts the corridors of an old folks’ home giving sponge baths.
(Am I working this theme thing too hard? I am so sorry! I’ll change the subject right now! Please don’t go back to checking your texts.)
As it happens, Maleek, the YouTube kid, and the creep are all played by John Hartman, who reminds me of no one so much as Sid Caesar’s diminutive sidekick, Howard Morris, and who gets a lot of comic mileage from the disjunction between a deadpan face and an effusive body. Hartman walks an interesting line in this, his first main-stage show, making himself noticed in no uncertain terms while maintaining the seamlessness of an ensemble that includes gifted veterans like Mike Kosinski and Tawny Newsome, whose work is also intensely—and often enough hilariously—kinetic.
Speaking of Sid Caesar and kinetics, one of the sweeter pieces in the show is a slight variation on an old Caesar classic in which he and Nanette Fabray mime an argument to the opening passage of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Here, the couple start bickering in a restaurant as they’re being serenaded by a violinist—who then follows them out to the street, into a taxi, and beyond, playing all the way.
Much of the aforementioned sweetness is based in nostalgia for a world most of us never experienced: after all, when was the last time you saw a strolling violinist in a restaurant? And then there’s something so old-school about watching the battle of the sexes played out in mime as if to say It was ever thus—when we know damn well that the last 50 or 60 years of social progress have rendered all sexual negotiations infinitely more complex and ambiguous. The guilty pleasure of the sketch lies in its retrograde politics, made harmless by the style of presentation.
But sometimes Depraved New World is just plain retrograde. Among the weakest points in the show is a scene where a man is tortured by the mere mention of the word “feminist.” Another places two expectant fathers in a hospital waiting room—as opposed to the delivery room—even though the age of the pacing daddy predates Lamaze. They don’t get the chance to pass out cigars, but they do crack wise about Nancy Grace, which is practically as passe.
Both funnier and fresher is a scene in which two gay men meet for a blind date, set up for them by a straight friend who figures sexual orientation alone ought to be common ground enough. Of course they find themselves at odds on all but one issue—which, cleverly, turns out to be what divides them more than anything else. Freshest of all, however, is a delightful stretch of audience-participation improv near the end of the evening.
There, now, I’m done. Sorry.