REVIEW: Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life (Second City etc)

Friggin’ hilarious

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The Second City e.t.c. presents
  
The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life
  
Directed by Bill Bungeroth
Musical direction by
Jesse Case
The Second City e.t.c., Piper’s Alley, 1608 N. Wells (map)
Open run  |  Tickets: $22–$27 |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Second City e.t.c.’s new revue, The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life, may not exactly live up to its boastful title, but it’s probably among the funniest times you can have for the price.

Photo_005_Melewski_Anthony_Sohn Like all such sketch-comedy shows, this one has its upsides and downsides, but when it works, it really clicks, and it works more often than not.

Much more musical than many Second City shows, Friggin’ offers some especially funny songs, delivered by a terrific cast who knows how to use their voices, backed by capable music director Jesse Case.

Beginning with a musical tribute to the "Good Old Days," the running joke of the revue, is a look back to the supposedly better days of the past — which seem to be the late 1990s, though few actual historical events are mentioned beyond general references to full employment, budget surpluses and no wars. That gives them ample scope to skewer the present, however. Christina Anthony, Beth Melewski and Mary Sohn, clad in stretch pants showing ample curves, take on the country’s idiotic "war on obesity" with a defiant song and dance on the joys of being "Rubenesque" that had nearly every woman in the audience cheering. Tom Flanigan is sidesplitting as a scat singer crooning to a group of dull-witted Tea Partiers. And Tim Baltz dramatically captures the all-encompassing and irrational rage of Obama haters in an office sketch.

Very little effort has gone into making this comedy politically balanced — the few digs at Dems are far outweighed by the arrows aimed at the increasingly easy targets of the right wing. I’m not sure this show would play so well in outside a liberal stronghold, but the Chicago audience ate it up. (Has any previous sitting administration ever been so lightly treated by comedians because their opponents made so much more compelling butts?)

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A few skits don’t deliver, such as one in which Flanigan and Anthony play a race-reversed doctor and nurse — beyond the initial surprise when you realize the white guy is playing a black man, there’s not much there.

The evening culminates with an overlong skit in which Brendan Jennings, wonderfully expressive throughout, time travels to his high-school prom with an audience volunteer. Jennings carries it off impressively, but the jokes don’t match the premise of a nerd who regrets having skipped the dance in the first place, and I imagine much depends on how well the volunteer plays up.

Overall, though, Director Bill Bungeroth has given us a fast-paced and hilarious look at those times that, for many of us, have been the worst of our lives.

     
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Written and performed by Christina Anthony, Tim Baltz, Tom Flanigan, Brendan Jennings, Beth Melewski and Mary Sohn

 

     
     

REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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