On a recent episode of the improv podcast Spontaneanation with Paul F. Tompkins, comedian Tawny Newsome aired some grievances about her time at Second City in Chicago. She said that up until at least 2012, the final year she was a part of the ensemble, female performers were required to wear dresses. That was difficult because improv is all about moving around, losing yourself in a scene, not worrying if a skirt will fly up, showing off bits you might not want to show off. It’s something that the men on stage didn’t have to worry about. And it’s a subtle reminder that even if some of the most progressive, boundary-pushing performers are cast in a show, Second City is still drawing the boundaries.
The cast of the 107th mainstage revue, Algorithm Nation or, The Static Quo, was all dressed in black turtlenecks and black pants regardless of gender, which is at least some progress since Newsome’s tenure. Well, all except for Jeffrey Murdoch, who in the opening scene is in his underwear, tied to a chair with duct tape over his mouth and nipples. Nate Varrone, flashing an eerily large smile, joins him and begins giving the tourist-friendly Second City spiel about the famous alums who have graced the stage in between bouts of berating Murdoch and smacking him as hard as he can with a pool noodle. What follows is a very aggressive opening number that involves guns, violence, and red flashing lights and seems intended to shock and upend expectations. Even with those Second City boundaries in place, the cast wants the audience to know they’re doing things differently. Or they’re at least trying their very best.
Algorithm Nation hits the requisite political punchlines, unavoidable in 2018, with mixed results. Later in the first half, Ryan Asher plays the host of a “Women for Trump” rally. Asher is one of the most high-energy performers in the cast, and it’s hard to keep your eyes off her when she enters a scene. In that way, this sketch was a great showcase of her talent. But it also demonstrated how, given how quickly events have progressed and the seriousness of current accusations, Trump jokes aren’t that funny anymore. The folks who support Trump are becoming more and more difficult to parody because they already feel like parodies of themselves. How do you parody a parody? As Asher high-kicked her way across the stage listing off the president’s values, it was more triggering than entertaining.
Moments that didn’t directly reference 45 were more successful. Tyler Davis was a standout in this regard with a song called “Dave is Dead.” While the song itself is not overtly hilarious, Davis uses a blues-style ballad to tell the story of a young black man who was killed then came back as a zombie for some “undead vigilante justice,” noting at the end of the song that “he’ll never get this chance because Dave is dead.” What is always most impressive about the Second City cast is its range of talents, and Davis should be given every opportunity to showcase his musicals chops. Murdoch and Varrone nicely wrapped several of the past year’s scandals into one sketch as a pair of television hosts who realize through an anniversary clip show that when it comes to racism, sexism, and good ole fashioned bigotry, they might have ended up on the wrong side of history (Asher and Emma Pope play their younger counterparts).
The biggest laughs of the night came from evergreen sketches: a bride left at the altar, played by Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, cries her way through the Cha-Cha Slide; a girl group comprised of Asher, Pope, and Vaughn sings about astrology and goes into the crowd to ask audience members, “What’s your sign?”; a son and stepdad, played by Asher and Murdoch, try to find common ground; and the entire ensemble, in a wordless sketch, endures a middle-school dance. But as talented as the cast is and as entertaining as some moments were, nothing felt unexpected. Even in the show’s final moments, when things really go off the rails (I don’t want to spoil the surprise), it’s still very clear how everything falls into the Second City algorithm, a concept that the title suggests this show is trying to upend.
As far as a night of comedy goes, you could definitely do worse. This a group of dynamic performers who have a shot at a spot in the Second City-to-Saturday Night Live pipeline. But when there are so many other progressive and innovative shows happening in the city, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see where a theater that wanted to keep women in dresses fits in. v