One Nation, Under Fraud

Second City E.T.C.

Soda Pop

In-Pact Theatre Company

at Organic Theater Greenhouse Lab Theater

Got home Sunday night from the opening of Second City E.T.C.’s new revue, One Nation, Under Fraud. Clicked on the tube, and there was Saturday Night Live’s Mike Myers talking to Entertainment Tonight about the new wave of sketch comedy on TV. It’s a subject Myers, who came to the United States from Canada expressly to work at Second City, would seem an expert on.

What is the reason for sketch comedy’s popularity? ET asked Myers and his SNL colleague Kevin Nealon. The actors’ replies had nothing to do with matters like satiric content or artistic form. What it boils down to, the stars opined, is the audience’s short attention span: clicker-wielding channel surfers don’t have time for plot or rhythm or subtlety of comic structure and characterization.

The problem with One Nation, Under Fraud is short attention span–the artists’. The six actors who created this formulaic assemblage of skits and songs–under the guidance of director Peter Burns, musical director Dan Gillogly, and choreographer Jim Corti–are capable performers. But if they understand how to build a scene from a provocative premise to a hilarious or insightful conclusion, or how to reveal the quirks and contradictions that distinguish one personality from another, you’d never know it. As for jokes, there are maybe enough good ones to sustain a short scene or two, but not a two-act show.

I suppose hopeful expectations had something–maybe a lot–to do with my disappointment. I’ve enjoyed director Burns’s work as an actor; in Wild Men and the old Friends of the Zoo shows, he displayed a dark, nervy edge sadly lacking here. And the title One Nation, Under Fraud leads one to anticipate some much-needed satire on the political and religious hypocrisy that dominates our culture. But aside from a couple of silly sight gags poking harmless fun at Newt Gingrich (as an orphans’ bogeyman) and Rush Limbaugh (as a high school debater), this show steers clear of political comment. Just as well; the hints of liberal sensibility on view here exemplify the gutless drift that has paved the way for the right-wing resurgence of the 1990s.

Though several scenes initially promise parodic insight, they quickly dumb down. In “Biograph,” a white suburban woman (Dee Ryan) runs in terror from a black man (John Hildreth) she presumes wants to rob her–and can’t overcome her fear even after she realizes he’s the parking-garage attendant trying to help her find her car. Rather than explore the characters’ misperceptions and apprehensions, the vignette opts for noisy, improbable physical comedy, with Hildreth stripping to the waist like a jungle hunter to chase Ryan around the theater. (Worried your scene is falling flat? Make the actors run around the audience. Viewers can’t get that on TV–yet.)

Or take “Southside,” about a white-ethnic family in a changing neighborhood. Though a couple of lines hint at a humorous exploration of interracial friendship, the routine settles into a tediously goofy exhibit of stereotype mongering by Jimmy Doyle in housecoat drag as a hausfrau, Jim Zulevic as Doyle’s moronic son, and Hildreth as the whiny black neighbor kid who tries to dry his pet guinea pig in Doyle’s microwave. None of it rises above the level of smug anticity mockery in a suburban high school lunchroom.

Scene after scene fizzles out without a point or a payoff. In “Paperboy,” Ryan and Jenna Jolovitz caper around as doddering old ladies–now there’s a daring topic–who flirt with their newspaper delivery man, an aging heavy-metal fan; presuming the situation to be innately humorous, the performers take the scene nowhere. Slightly more satisfying is a bit about a teenager (Jolovitz) who receives an unexpected gentleman caller–Abe Lincoln (Adam McKay). The scene doesn’t seem to have much point, but at least McKay and Jolovitz strike some quirky sparks together. The climactic “Passion” parodies the changing Catholic Church, with a Bing Crosby-type priest doing a song-and-dance routine with a gay activist, an abortion-rights advocate, a rebel nun, and a woman who wants to play Jesus in the parish Easter pageant; the company seem to think these contrasting types are funny enough in themselves that character development is unnecessary. “Operator,” in which a USAir reservations clerk (Jolovitz) torments a potential passenger (Zulevic), lays the groundwork for a surprise reprise in act two–a welcome change of pace in a show notably weak on structure.

By far the best-paced portion of Sunday’s opening was “Documentary,” a long-form improvisation in which the actors spontaneously create a mock documentary on a subject suggested by the audience. Sunday’s theme was “toaster,” and the result was a sometimes surprisingly clever series of routines on the role of heated bread in American culture. The game was helped immeasurably by the intuitive editing of stage manager Michael Broh at the lighting board; his cuing for the actors to start and end their bits added a sharp pace that Burns’s direction lacks.

Somewhere in One Nation, Under Fraud there’s something like a running theme: the insularity, arrogance, and shallowness of contemporary American culture. I think Burns and his cast might have some opinions on the matter, but they’re afraid to share them. Maybe they think the audience won’t agree. (What if they’re all . . . Republicans?) Or maybe they think the audience just doesn’t give a shit; imagine a theaterful of people reaching for their clickers. Or maybe I’m wrong; maybe the lack of substance does reflect how these actors feel and think–just as the great material in Second City shows of the past reflected those performers’ high degree of sophistication and concern for the country.

Whatever the cause, this lazy, pandering production lives up all too well to the smug stupidity attributed to Rush Limbaugh in one sketch: “We’re America and we can do whatever we want.” We’re Second City, the company seem to be saying, and we can do whatever we want. Audiences like the whooping boosters who stacked opening night might agree, in the short run anyway. But to this viewer, Second City E.T.C., like America, is in a lot of trouble.

Soda Pop is a hell of a lot better than One Nation, Under Fraud–but it suffers from the same lazy comic mentality. A spoof of a spoof, James N. Hanna’s “lip-synch musical” seems inspired less by 1950s teen culture than by lampoons of that culture. It assumes that after decades of retro parody (Sha Na Na, Grease, Happy Days, John Waters’s films Cry-Baby and Hairspray) merely uttering cliches about proms, slumber parties, class rings, and going all the way is so amusing that one needn’t pay any attention to ideas, structure, or wit.

This In-Pact Theatre Company show–mounted last year as a Live Bait Theater late-night offering, now revived as a prime-time production at the Organic–is a musical comedy like Grease, but instead of original songs the characters lip-synch and dance to hit records of the era. Robert Mello has provided some pleasant musical staging for songs like “Leader of the Pack,” “At the Hop,” “Chantilly Lace,” and “Teen Angel.” Lip-synching is an art of its own, and if Soda Pop lacks the dazzle of Forever Plaid (in which four singers actually re-create the sounds of soda-shop pop), it’s undeniably fun to watch director Scott Tomhave’s ten-person cast (costumed by Jennifer Allton in long skirts, letter sweaters, and a wonderful array of hats) act out these classic 45s. Carolyn Slemp, as good-girl-gone-bad Betty, does an especially impressive rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” The songs are so good, in fact, one wishes there weren’t so much dialogue; trying to spoof the ersatz innocence of the Eisenhower era, this unpretentious, unimaginative effort falls far short of the cleverness and flair of any number of Annoyance Theatre shows–not to mention Our Miss Brooks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.