Of the many recurring gags in the new Second City e.t.c. show, the most pervasive suggests that wherever we are, we can wriggle through a hole in the air and find ourselves in a truth bubble, a zone of nothingness where we can speak in total honesty without consequences.
In that spirit, let me first say that “Gaslight District” has an adroit and likable cast, demonstrating a vast range of talents in a production that’s sleek, topical and energetic. And now a word from inside the truth bubble:
It’s not all that funny.
One squeezes into a Second City seat with certain expectations of what you’ll see —some innovations, some specific jibes about life in Chicago and, in recent years, some musings about the African-American experience.
‘Gaslight District’ ★★1/2 When: Open run Where: Second City e.t.c., 230 W. North Tickets: $21-$48 Info: secondcity.com Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with one intermission
There’s none of that here. What director Anneliese Toft and her cast of writer-performers favor are mildly amusing scenarios that ramble on without any provocative highs or lows. Plus some improv. Plus dancing.
So much dancing.
I lost track of how many times one or more actors were up there busting moves to EDM beats. Sometimes that was the extent of the humor: Don’t we look daffy doing this? Isn’t that enough?
The opening scene, in fact, is just an Office Depot salesman who yearns to dance for a living and demonstrates his popping and locking and b-boy moves, over and over, without jokes or much of a narrative arc. The second act starts with a variation on Reggie Watts’ old act, as the cast members make funny noises that are mixed into pulsing beats and accompany their silly footwork. Not much later, the non-skinny Katie Kershaw is told her choice of a crop top is “brave,” and the botched compliment evolves into background music for — you guessed it — more dancing.
(How did this place get so dance-y anyway? Is there even room anymore for someone hilarious who has two left feet? Would, say, Alan Arkin or Betty Thomas have had the terpsichorean abilities to make it onto this stage?)
As saturated as the comedy marketplace is with humor about the president, the Second City audience seems to crave more, and a mere utterance of “OK” by Andrew Knox in Trumpian tones electrifies the crowd with anticipation. Mercifully, the show resists temptation and limits itself to two brief, decent vignettes about the Laughingstock-in-Chief.
Otherwise, the sharpest commentary on geopolitics is a statement by Germans thanking the U.S. for doing so much wrong and taking the heat off their own past. “We even made being a Nazi illegal,” one says, “which you should think about trying.”
Many scenes offer a lot of latitude for improvising, some with pretty played-out premises, e.g. a suggestion given the spin of Fox News and NPR. A little later, an audience member (redeployed throughout the show) is plucked to share an Uber with the inquisitive cast, coaxing answers to use in a song closing the first act.
Among the cast, the most striking presence belongs to Emily Fightmaster, a tall, androgynous figure with a stinging wit, the better for mocking a bubbly nurse who’s ruining her night in a hospice ward, or misreading the coffee customer requesting a “roast” and jabbing him with a withering insult. One showcase moment has her singing as an alien touting an LGBTQ-friendly utopia that welcomes Unidentified Sexual Objects and bans khakis. In another, set at a Sport Clips-style salon, she’s a gangly, bespectacled, over-the-top oddball in a wig right out of “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Contrasting her icy manner is Jasbir Singh Vazquez, a warm, everyman type who’s often front and center. He’s the aforementioned Office Depot dancer as well as an agreeable immigrant facing a new hire at Customs (Sayjal Joshi) as he attempts to self-deport to Mexico. A scene set at a hotel populated by high school mathletes gives him abundant opportunities to mug as the teacher assigned to guard their rooms but so sleepy that he keeps being pranked.
They’re the standouts in a group of quick, agile group performers doing a rather generic revue. They know how to keep a crowd fired up and stimulated but seem to lack the will or the skill to generate big belly laughs, to tell the truth.