Stage Door Review

Walking on Bombshells

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Phatt Al, Nadine Djoury, Stacey McGunnigle, Sharjil Rasool, Allana Reoch & Chris Wilson, directed by Chris Earle

The Second City, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto

March 19-September 8, 2019

McGunnigle to audience: “Remember, we judge you as much as you judge us”

Last year The Second City produced one of the most successful shows in its history – The Best Is Yet To Come Undone. The company’s latest show, Walking on Bombshells, looks to be every bit as successful. One major reason is that the company seems to understand that today’s audience is oversaturated with world news that would be considered too ludicrous to believe if it were not true. It is also oversaturated with late-night satirical commentary on that news even though daily satire is the best way to cope with the unbelievable amount of events, both stupid and horrific, that seem to occur every day. 

The Second City’s Walking on Bombshells recognizes that people need to laugh now more than ever but that it can’t peg its comedy too closely to current events for a show meant to run for months since these events appear to be in constant flux. Therefore, the show’s creators have wisely decided to base the brunt of their satire on the root cause of the outrages, personal and international, that have occupied our minds. That cause is prejudice in all its forms.

The well-chosen troupe brings this out in the best sketch of the evening and indeed a sketch so good it already has the aura of a classic. It begins simply. Stacey McGunnigle playing a manager fires Phatt Al, who plays a worker. It dawns on Al, “I know, you’re firing me because I’m ...”, deliberately not finishing the sentence. This leaves the audience to fill in the ellipsis mentally. Does he mean male, Black, overweight or something else? McGunnigle denies the charge, but then says, “Oh, you just think that because I’m .....” Again we wonder if she means White, female or something else. After these undefined accusations fly back and forth, they call in Nadine Djoury to negotiate. “Oh you’re just calling me in for this dispute because I’m ....” Does she mean female, White or Jewish or what? When Sharjil Rasool is called in, he complains, “Oh, I see. I’m the last one you call because I’m .....” Male, Brown, South-Asian? The same goes for Allana Reoch, who acts so dumb that her “because I’m ...” could be finished really only with “dumb”. When Head Manager Chris Wilson arrives because of all of the noise, he blithely fills in the blanks for everyone, outraging them all and causing him to retreat.

The sketch is brilliant because we know each character is accusing the other of prejudice. It’s just that we don’t know what kind it is, the corollary being that it doesn’t matter what kind it is. Prejudice is prejudice and is divisive. 

This impact of this sketch informs all the subsequent skits about race, religion and size that follow. In a clever, well-written scene Rasool, playing a Muslim father and Djoury, playing a Jewish father, both wearing obviously fake moustaches, deplore the fact that Rasool’s son is secretly dating Djoury’s daughter and may even get married. The two old men agree that Jews and Muslims don’t mix. They’re just like oil and water. But as each complains about his child we see not how different but how very much alike the two men really are. 

In a short skit Al goes to see Rasool, who is playing a doctor. Al complains that he has a sore throat. Rasool tells Al he should lose weight. This leads Al into an hilarious stream of complaint about how every time he sees a doctor, about no matter what, they all say he should lose weight even when, as here, there’s no connection between a sore throat and obesity. The word “sizeism” is never mentioned, but we can see that that is what the skit is really about. 

Act 2 begins with a group sketch in which each performer sings out loud something that they might think but never say. This scheme allows the group to express all sorts of politically incorrect notions. Rasool mentions first as a complaint and later as a source of pride that he keeps getting asked if he’s Freddie Mercury. This sequence presents a much more humane view of what people are like. They are not perfect. But it emphasizes the point that it is important to recognize the difference between what you think and what you say. If you can’t say it, you should ask yourself why you think it.

In a sketch fronted by McGunnigle, she asks how men can use the term “ballsy” as an insult to women. She and the cast then proceed to describe testicles in disgusting detail to emphasize the disparity between the glands and idea they’re supposed to represent. To balance this sketch there is another later on in which Allana Reoch and Nadine Djoury play two women at a sauna too embarrassed to walk about towel-less since each thinks her vagina looks abnormal. 

The theme of prejudice ends a rather unusual way for a sketch comedy show, namely in a poignant scene that could just as well be called drama as comedy. Reoch is playing an old woman sitting on a park bench feeding the ducks, when she is joined by Al, playing an old man who has been a longtime friend. In passing, Reoch mentions that she told her doctor that she was looking forward to going to the park as usual and talking to her Black friend. Al, of course, wants to know why she felt the need to say her friend was Black. She tells him she said it because her doctor is Black and she wanted him to feel comfortable. “Or did you want to feel comfortable?” asks Al. Reoch then proceeds to try to show she is devoid of prejudice. She doesn’t “see colour” she says and then immediately points out which ducks are male and which female by the colour of their plumage. She goes through all the non-White people knows, but the paradox is that to say she doesn’t notice their difference means that she has to mention their difference. The scene fades on Reoch feeling shaken because of failing so badly in her explanation and Al comforting her. It is a lovely scene that really could win any 10-minute drama competition because it packs so much feeling into so short a running time.

While prejudice and how it affects us may the the thread running through the show, Walking on Bombshells is unusual in how many sketches it includes that are pure comedy without any satirical bent. For some reason most of these feature Chris Wilson. In one he plays a man kicked out of his home by his wife who now has to make do sleeping on a love-seat at some friends’ home. The contortions Wilson goes through in trying to find a suitable position for sleeping is physical comedy at its best. One might have feared that Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean was the last manifestation of this kind of humour, so it is a great relief to find someone in the younger generation to carry it on. 

In another sequence Wilson and McGunnigle play a guy and girl who want to go back to his place. The trouble is they’ve got to bike there. Wilson and McGunnigle mime biking in Toronto traffic with all its attendant perils in synchronized perfection.

Wilson also demonstrates two types of pure non-silent comedy. In one he plays a father to a shy child, Reoch, hoping the child will follow his lead and place an order at a food court restaurant. Reoch can’t bring herself to speak, but this contrasts with the super high-speed conversations Wilson is having simultaneously on the phone, with the attendant and with impatient people in line, conversations that likely only inhibit the child from speaking. In another he sings a self-referential song about hitting a high note, where the anticipation caused by the lyrics, of course, sabotages the ending. 

At The Second City we are so used to verbal sketches or to sketches ending with a verbal punchline that it is exciting to see it explore other forms of comedy and comic endings. Director Chris Earle does use the familiar punchline-blackout ending, but in Walking on Bombshells he also has lighting designer Allan Day use slow fade-outs more frequently. In a show where a pervasive ongoing human trait is its through-line, such fade-outs only emphasize that the difficulty is continuing and doesn’t simply end with a clever remark.

Walking on Bombshells sports the most elaborate set I’ve seen at The Second City. Designer Bob Knuth has made the set into a replica of the platform of the Osgoode subway station with a combination of obvious and hidden entrances. The last time I’ve seen such a surprisingly detailed stage set of a Toronto subway station was John Thompson's for Chris Earle’s own play Russell Hill in 2003. The setting allows for frequent jokes about the TTC and serves as a meeting place, as the subway does in real life, for the huge range of people who make up Toronto and who somehow all get along. The location is thus a prime counter-example to the divisiveness that many people from less diverse cities would suppose exists in a city where more than 50% of the population was not born in Canada.

While the set under Day’s lighting serves as many other locations, the show begins and ends in the subway station. Its final appearance shows the the exasperated would-be riders suddenly brought together by the announcement of a delay. This allows the top-notch troupe to replay bits from previous sketches and thus helps give the show a real sense of completeness. It also ends the show on a reflective mood. This is not a raucous, biting conclusion but one that asks people to recall what things they are grateful for. In a world that seems so riven by hatred, this ending shows that comedy can also serve to heal. Walking on Bombshells is certainly funny, but it is also insightful and uplifting, and these are qualities could not be in more demand than they are right now. It’s a show to add now to your must-see list. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Stacey McGunnigle, Allana Reoch, Nadine Djoury, Phatt Al, Sharjil Rasool and Chris Wilson; Sharjil Rasool, Nadine Djoury, Allana Reoch, Stacey McGunnigle, Phatt Al and Chris Wilson; Chris Wilson and Allana Reoch. © 2019 Paul Aihoshi.

For tickets, visit www.secondcity.com.