Woolly Mammoth, home of much of the contemporary indie theatre scene in D.C., is hosting The Second City’s Let Them Eat Chaos until August 2. The famed Chicago sketch troupe performs about two hours of mixed sketch and improv, integrating up-to-the minute issues with general weirdness and some new technological components.
The set is relatively minimal. It involves three towers, each with several windows, optimal for Niccole Thurman, the closest thing we have to a host, poking her head out for a well-timed comment on a scene happening below. Two of these towers are conjoined by a giant ball used as a projection screen, which lights up between scenes and occasionally during the sketches. The rest of the stage is barren except for some chairs.
This giant light ball seems like it’s not being used to its likely very expensive potential– outside of the radio frequency projected on it in between scenes, it’s really only used a couple of times, and only really necessary for one of those scenes.
The show begins with Thurman on stage, questioning some audience members about how they know each other and what their names were. This performance had an older couple in the front row named Art and Jim. “Art and Jim, huh,” said Thurman, “two subjects in school.” That kind of quick-paced improv was always a highlight, like when the audience was asked for something that made them sad today and one guy responded “work”, and they built a skit around an unfortunate guy who had to go to work.
The five-person cast is extremely talented, but Thurman is the breakout star, keeping things running with a very theatrical performance that seemed appropriately rehearsed even when she was obviously improvising. The other standout characters were played by Kevin Sciretta, with a personal favorite being a scene where he plays a demonic child trying to sway a potential suitor away from dating his mother. All five also had seriously impressive musical chops, particularly Thurman, who had a great duet with Holly Laurent.
The Second City promises to deliver on hot-button topics and they throw an unbelievable amount of current references out to us. The D.C.-centric jokes (particularly those surrounding the Redskins) always went over well with the crowd, especially a group of drunk older ladies who must have been under the impression that you were supposed to heckle the cast even when they weren’t asking for audience interaction.
Race is the most pressed button, and only during one skit do they really succeed in being both poignant and hilarious. Cast members Travis Turner and Kevin Sciretta warm up like they’re going to throw down the most incredible rap battle the audience has ever seen, and Turner raps a very serious verse about oppression and education in the black community (which, if properly listened to, is really quite well-written) and we expect Sciretta to follow suit, however the only struggle he has ever really experienced is Pinkberry taking away the peach flavor, so he raps about that. The juxtaposition is hilarious and only a little sad, unlike some other skits involving race that are kind of just sad and not very funny, though the audience still laughed. Race is absolutely a pertinent issue that should be addressed, but this skit was the only one that really nailed it. After one kind of funny but mostly painful skit involving police accidentally shooting a black woman and placing the gun in her hands to make her look guilty, Turner comes out and performs an impactful spoken word piece asking us why we found that skit funny, before continuing on with the show like it didn’t even happen. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but perhaps it’s uncomfortable because he’s not wrong.
Let Them Eat Chaos lost some of its appeal by attempting to reach some type of deeper meaning, such as in the conclusion of another skit about a deaf kid sent to the guidance counselor’s office for bullying or the ending sequence where they attempt to connect the skits in a way that has no final payoff or joke. We have no empathy for or attachment to these characters when we know that they will exit the stage within five minutes, only to have their same portrayer return immediately to the stage as someone else.
That being said, the less serious Let Them Eat Chaos is, the stronger it is, and for 90% it is goofy, absurd fun.