Stage Door Review 2019

If I Could #Throwback Time

Saturday, October 19, 2019


by Tricia Black, Clare McConnell, Natalie Metcalfe, Alan Shane Lewis, Sharjil Rasool & Chris Wilson, directed by Rob Baker

The Second City, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto

October 10, 2019-March 14, 2020

Chris and Sharjil: “Do you see?”

The Second City has had such a run of exceptionally good shows like The Best is Yet to Come Undone (2018), She The People: The Resistance Continues (2019), Walking on Bombshells (2019), one was starting to wonder how long their winning streak would last. These are challenging times to write a sketch comedy revue intended for at least a five-month run. The upcoming election in Canada, the possible impeachment proceedings in the US and Brexit among other ever-changing events are all best handled by late night comedians on television who can keep up with the dizzying, ever-changing circumstances. The Second City has dealt with this difficulty by focussing not on current events but on the more permanent injustices in society of racism, sexism, homophobia and on the never-outworn complexities of interpersonal relationships.

The Second City’s latest show seems to announce a retreat from satirizing day-to-day politics with the very title of new show – If I Could #Throwback Time – the only contemporary element in it being the hashtag. The show is unified by the theme of the comparison of the present with the past and even features several sketches that use the same structure of rewinding the present to various possible pasts. The present revue, unlike the three mentioned above, suffers from two main flaws. First, the quality of the sketches is quite uneven and, second, many of the sketches, including some of the most imaginative ones, go on too long. A general tightening of each sketch and of the overall pacing would help give this revue the zip and impact of the best Second City revues.

The opening prologue involves the entire cast and expresses the wish so many people have to go back to a time when things were much better that they are today. The first sketch, however, reveals a common flaw present in many of the following sketches of beginning with a premise that is not followed up. In this case two jocks (Alan Shane Lewis and Chris Wilson) are taking an exam in Canadian history that they must pass to stay on the football team. Each has read only half the history textbook so they decide to cheat together. What happens instead is that Lewis knows the real answers to what happened in history – as with Sir John A. Macdonald’s beliefs in white supremacy or with the government’s mistreatment of Indigenous people – rather than the rosier view of history that the textbook gives.

Somehow the unseen teacher supervising the exam hears the two whispering and advises them to give the textbook answers. The problem is that the sketch has quickly changed its focus from two jocks cheating on an exam to a portrayal of two students who know more about history than is in their textbook. Although the sketch makes many good points about how the official version of history rewrites the past, the sketch has used the wrong set-up for that material to make sense.

Another one that begins in one direction and ends somewhere else has Chris Wilson as a flight attendant trying to read out the safety instructions to his passengers. Unfortunately, the passengers persist in pressing their call buttons and interrupting his speech to Wilson’s increasing consternation. We think that the point of the skit will be the problem of people caring more about themselves than about the group as a whole and surmise that the skit will end in disaster. In fact, the scheme has no larger meaning. It turns out that the call buttons are tuned to different notes and that if the passengers play them in the right sequence it creates the tune of an 1990’s dance hit. It funny but it’s a long lead up with little payoff.

Two of the best skits strike one immediately as instant classics and it may be no accident that both are based on pure physical comedy. In one we see Clare McConnell and Alan Shane Lewis standing under a sign advertising used cars. When the music starts the two collapse and as if boneless rise, arms flailing and bending down again only to rise and flail. We recognize immediately that McConnell and Lewis are imitating the inflatable tube men one so often sees at tacky sales establishments. The flexibility of the two performers is amazing, especially McConnell’s, but then the two tube people notice each other and McConnell and Lewis enact an hilarious mime of what sex would be like between these two balloon-like creatures.

In the other physical comedy skit we see Sharjil Rasool engrossed in texting on his smartphone and Chris Wilson sneaking about wearing a fedora below a sign reading “The World’s Greatest Pickpocket”. When the music starts Wilson, tiptoeing about like a cartoon villain, divests Rasool not just of his belongs but of virtually everything he is wearing. The comedy derives completely from the duo’s expert timing and from Rasool’s ability to remain completely unfazed by every one of Wilson’s attacks.

Of the best spoken sketches one involves the turning back of time literally, one metaphorically and one looks into the future. In the first of these Clare McConnell and Chris Wilson are at one table and notice that Tricia Black, playing an obnoxious man, is making sexually suggestive remarks to their waitress, Natalie Metcalfe. What should the socially-conscious McConnell and Wilson have done to prevent or intervene in the situation? Time is rewound and the action replayed with variations numerous times to see what strategy would work. But none does. The payoff is that the political correctivists have misread the situation.

In the second mother Clare McConnell welcomes her lesbian daughter Tricia Black back from conversion therapy. In perhaps the most insightful moments of the show, Black reveals that not only is she straight but she no longer believes in science.

In the third Natalie Metcalfe plays a woman unhappy after her divorce who wants to know about her future self. This self she chooses from the audience and that person’s present life then becomes Metcalfe’s future. After Metcalfe’s interview with her future self, Sharjil Rasool appears and does a fantastic improv with Metcalfe to demonstrate how Metcalfe’s future is just about to begin.

The main flaw characteristic of far too many of the sketches is that they go on long after they have made their point. In one Clare McConnell has taken a job elsewhere and her boyfriend Chris Wilson has to say goodby. To make the goodbye less painful for him, he wants McConnell to say something mean to him so that he won’t get nostalgic about the moment. McConnell is comically inept at thinking of anything bad to say but after replaying the scene innumerable times she does get better and finally does think of real things to say that do hurt him. The trouble is that this process includes several false starts that artificially delay the ending. While the conclusion is played as poignant – the only attempt at poignancy in the show – we feel it has taken far too many twists and turns to reach it.

In another Chris Wilson is a policeman who is confident he will get a confession out of the prisoner Sharjil Rasool. As it happens Rasool is a drooling, psychotic serial killer. Because, however, Rasool is brown-skinned, Wilson has him pegged as a terrorist. After far too much discussion the point is made that only White people who kill many people are deemed serial killers whereas Brown people are deemed terrorists. (This is not even true since people have begun to realize that White Nationalists are terrorists too.) The further point is that Netflix only creates series about White serial killers, never serial killers of other colours. At this juncture it feels as if the skit has lost whatever point it initially had in sight.

In a third Chris Wilson and Sharjil Rasool play presenters announcing the dangers of climate change in portentous voices. Yet, what they say is so ridiculous that it seems the skit is making fun of people who believe in climate change. The model of the earth is a blue balloon, a hopelessly inadequate metaphor, since the gases are inside the balloon, not outside it. Their refrain after making every point is “Do you see?”  But of course we don’t. Only at the last moment do Wilson and Rasool turn the tone around, but by then it is too late.

Besides these types of sketches the show includes an audience participation game that might be fun at a party but which really stops the show dead. Four aliens (Black, Metcalfe, Lewis and Rasool) say they will destroy the planet but are willing to save those who have never behaved selfishly. To determine this the audience is asked to turn on their smartphones to flashlight mode. Every time a person has committed the offence the aliens mention, the offending audience member must turn off the light. A typical offence is saying hello to a dog but not its master. The idea is for the aliens to ask questions until everyone’s light has been turned off to demonstrate how we are all guilty of some rudeness. The trouble is that depending in the audience, this process can take forever, especially if audience members are not honest with themselves.

Thus, while If I Could #Throwback Time has several excellent sketches, there are also longueurs, something one does not expect at the Second City. One also doesn’t expect the musical accompaniment to be so loud that the performers often cannot be heard clearly. The show is always at least amusing but it simply doesn’t function at the high energy and bitingly satirical level of previous shows. Perhaps once the political chaos in the world settles down, the Second City troupe will be able to reflect its effect more directly and with more incisiveness.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Chris Wilson, Sharjil Rasool, Tricia Black, Clare McConnell, Alan Shane Lewis and Natalie Metcalfe; Clare McConnell and Alan Shane Lewis as Tube Men; Tricia Black as a lesbian daaughter and Clare McConnell as her mother; Sharjil Rasool as a serial killer and Chris Wilson as a policeman. © 2019 The Second City.

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