Second City’s aggressive ‘Algorithm Nation’ goes for the gut
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The rare Second City show that reflects its jokey title, the new “Algorithm Nation or, the Static Quo” purports (fictitiously) to be a product of Facebook, customized to suit the precise demographics of this audience. But it feels like its guidance came not from data mined online but from electrodes on our brains and hearts, detecting stimulus that will provide the maximum visceral jolts.
Take the opening image: cast member Jeffrey Murdoch, stripped to his shoes and boxers, bound to Second City’s trademark bentwood chair, silenced with tape on his mouth. This disturbing sight — a pink, doughy man, wriggling in pathetic agony and about to endure a beating — prompts the guiltiest of laughter.
‘Algorithm Nation or, the Static Quo’
When: Open run
Where: Second City, 1616 N. Wells
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
It’s a signal, I suppose, that gentle humor won’t be a priority tonight, a promise borne out as an actor puts a bullet in his head, and three men act out prolonged orgasms, and Charlie Brown opens fire on Lucy. If you’re eager for the sometimes sublime, understated wit of this storied theater, you’ve come to the wrong place.
To be sure, this talented cast and director Matt Hovde play a variety of notes. The second scene, a black couple (Tyler Davis and Kimberly Michelle Vaughn) toying with the white guilt of their new Bronzeville neighbors (Ryan Asher and Nate Varrone), has the grounded nature and satirical bite of classic Second City, just with references to being “woke” and Black Lives Matter.
“We watch a lot of black porn,” Varrone assures his new friends. “It’s our way of giving back!”
But the hypocrisy of the Caucasian liberal is a perennial Second City theme and, like much of this show’s material, this bit feels like topical allusions sprinkled atop a worn-out premise. So too when Varrone and Murdoch play TV hosts shocked by old clips of their overt homophobia, racism and fat-shaming. Is our history of political incorrectness supposed to be revelation?
Like the previous mainstage show “Dream Freaks Fall from Space,” in which most of this cast appeared, this one thrills the eyes and ears with crisp timing and dazzling light and sound design.
Unlike “Dream Freaks,” it takes some deep dives into politics, but in heavy-handed fashion. Besides its blunt assaults on GOP policy, a scene set in a White House escape room also suffers from a convoluted premise, something about interns trapped until they can solve right-wing riddles.
The most overpowering of the sledgehammer attacks is Ryan Asher’s solo spot as the drawling leader of a Donald Trump rally. Commentary is secondary to grotesque caricature as Asher bellows reductive versions of the MAGA agenda, screaming Sam Kinison-style, guffawing and doing high kicks for punctuation.
Her pep talk is at least ambitious. That’s not always the case in “Algorithm Nation.” The showcase moment at the end of the first act, a spot traditionally reserved for knockout crowd-pleaser, here is devoted to a routine round of the old improv game Freeze Tag. Talk about anticlimactic.
Of the cast members, Varrone again is set up as a sort of leader as well as a demented oddball, front and center in most of the show’s weirdest moments. It’s his initially promising song, about the benefits of wearing your Bluetooth during sex, that degenerates into the off-putting orgasm-a-thon.
Paired often, to winning effect, are Davis and mainstage newcomer Vaughn, who have great chemistry as a dad and his 4th-grade daughter working through her racially charged bullying problem. Vaughn also shines as a jilted bride who alternately sobs and grins her way through her wedding reception, the DJ (Davis) cheering her on through “Cha-Cha Slide.”
Another highlight casts the no-holds-barred Asher with newcomer Emma Pope, an effervescent Mary Tyler Moore type, as lunching pals trying to sell product lines to one another and aggressively exaggerating the merits of their wares.
In the big conclusion, Davis interrupts a scene to declare the algorithm broken and go into the audience for a hostage, who ends up with more to do than the usual semi-volunteer from the crowd. The ticket holders love having a peer to root for, and the gimmick ends the show on a positive note. It’s what you have to do when the comedy before relies too much on dirty jokes and sensory bombardment, like Blue Man Group working blue.