Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: The Second City regurgitates tired jokes about Dallas - Pegasus News

It was tough to find humor in the JFK assassination, one of our city's most painful memories.

Photo, taken 2012-09-12 21:56:59

â€" Quick: You have 30 seconds to name the top five things about Dallas that you hear Dallasites gripe about and the top five stereotypes of Texas that outsiders make fun of. Ready? Go!

You have more than likely just outlined at least 70% of the material covered by The Second City Does Dallas in their roast of our fair city. Tony Romo, check. Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, check. Big cars, check. Baptists, check. Plano. Check, check, check.

The opening jokes are intriguing, teasing us with a promise that The Second City is here not to make friends but to illustrate with cutting humor the quirks that many in Dallas try so hard not to think about: that Dallas has more billionaires per capita than any other city in the country, yet 21% of us live under the poverty line; that city dwellers nurture an almost pathological derision of the suburbs that are vital to the very existence and identity of Dallas; that (to paraphrase) we don’t have to be accountable because we’re from Dallas, and we “kick ass!!!”

But these early promises go unfulfilled. The intrinsic contradictory nature of this city lends itself so well to intelligent humor, but ultimately, The Second City just regurgitates what everyone, both natives and outsiders, has used as fodder for jokes about Dallas for the last 20 years.

I expect more from a cast with so many area natives, including resident Dallas darling and Diane and Hal Brierley Acting Company member Liz Mikel, University of Texas graduate Martin Garcia, and Lake Highlands native John Sabine. Frank Caeti, Amanda Blake Davis, and Scott Morehead round out the cast.

Director Matt Hovde’s past as a TCU grad goes unexploited aside from a few jokes about the Dallas-Fort Worth rivalry, which is one of many sketch topics from The Second City that seems to be a much bigger deal to people who are not residents of Dallas or Fort Worth. Mesquite is the white trash suburb where Plano residents go to downsize, Arlington is full of meth addicts and fun factories like Six Flags and Cowboys Stadium, outsourced by Dallas, and all are in favor of excommunicating Garland from the Metroplex, butâ€"all together now!â€"at least we don’t live in Houston!

There are a few shining moments. Crowd favorite Mikel never disappoints when she gets a chance to belt, and the original songs by Matthew Loren Cohen showcase her range and comedic timing. A lengthy sketch devoted to how “Dallas gays are the best gays” and could totally steal your wife if they wanted to receive some of the biggest laughs, not because of the pat and predictable stock homosexual characters, but because it is incisive and pointed humor that draws roars from the audience while driving home the issue of marriage inequality. In fact, all of the cast members showcase impeccable timing and the confidence of trained comedic actors. Their performances show why they deserve to be members of the venerable Second City ensemble, and their delivery of the unsurprising material went a long way toward charming me into tolerant amusement.

Then we get to the jokes about commemorating the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination with a celebration complete with commemorative bobble-heads and a shooting contest, and much of the show’s charm evaporates in a mist of bad taste. Though there are some guffaws, they echo in the sudden chilly vacuum of a crowd that doesn’t seem to see the humor in one of our city's most painful memories.

Moments like that are where The Second City’s lack of real research or preparation is most evident. Some Texans may love their guns, and we’ve learned to give rehearsed smiles to punch lines involving deer antler shotgun racks and NRA rallies. But we don’t make jokes about shooting presidents here. Similarly, jokes about getting pulled over driving through Highland Park for the crime of driving through Highland Park are probably not best delivered by two white guys in business suits. These are cultural missteps that could easily have been avoided with a little more research and thought.

Other than the JFK bit, the show isn’t bad. But it isn’t great either and it most certainly isn’t a roast of Big D. It’s more like a poach. If Dallas Theater Center's goal, as artistic director Kevin Moriarty says in the DTC press release, is to “spark a conversation” about “who we are and how we’re perceived as a city,” then I’m not sure how successful it is. If it is to provide a steady stream of effective, if unremarkable, comedy about Dallas stereotypes, then it does what it set out to do.

The quality of the production excels over its content.

The transitions are seamless. Hovde’s direction seems to include cast members teleporting to opposite sides of the theater during blackouts, which Lighting Designer Aaron Johansen keeps short and non-intrusive, to pop up where they are least expected.

Set Designer Bob Lavallee does his best to transform the beautiful Wyly Theatre into a Chicago comedy club, with the first section of the audience lounging on couches, the second section sitting cabaret style around cocktail tables, and the backmost third of the seating in traditional green seats. Cohen’s music is perfectly timed and keeps the energy up throughout, and Sound Designer Charles Parsley II makes sure we hear every bit of dialogue over the audience’s laughter, which keeps the flow smooth. Costume Designer Jennifer Ables outfits the cast in basic but versatile suits for the men and black shirts and pants for the women which, like the minimal set pieces, allow the actors to shift between characters without distraction.

Don’t get me wrong: I laughed. The show is amusing in the way a bloopers montage of people falling at weddings is amusing, in that the obvious humor is almost automatic. But The Second City Does Dallas doesn’t spark much real conversation or provoke much real thought, and in playing to the vision of Dallas portrayed on shows like GCB and Most Eligible Dallas, they miss a real opportunity to dig into the diversity and paradoxical nature of this city and elevate this show to something of true cultural relevance. Maybe my expectations were too high, or perhaps my laughable Southern sense of decency was just on display. After all, it just seems like good manners to have an actual point when you make fun of someone.

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