If you are a fan of Saturday Night Live or Whose Line is It Anyway?, chances are that you have watched alumni of The Second City in action — Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Colin Mochrie and Steve Carrell rank among the former students of the world’s largest comedy theatre school. Established in Chicago in 1959 and then Toronto in 1973, The Second City is still a force to be reckoned with, dishing out wry meditations on conformist culture with an experimental approach modelled on the improvisational games of Viola Spoon.
This Party’s a Riot, the Toronto theatre’s 67th revue, bravely looked today’s rather lamentable state of affairs in the eye. The theme song could well have been British singer Lily Allen’s “22”: “It’s sad but it’s true / There’s nothing to do, there’s nothing to say.” Except, as Director Bruce Pirrie and the cast demonstrated, there’s a lot to be said! One sketch tackled generation gaps. Adam Hawley’s character, a twenty-something college graduate, seethed with rage whilst grinning as amicably as possible as he railed against baby boomers for occupying jobs that should go to underemployed younger workers saddled with college loans. His father (Rob Baker) answered only with cheerful nonchalance. But when grandpa (Kris Siddiqi) launched into his wartime stories of suffering and alludes to his being dispatched to a nursing home, the younger two halted their initial moaning. Ultimately, the trio didn’t know what to make of things and, failing to find weed, smoked grandpa’s prescription drugs instead.
Admittedly the show seemed targeted at middle class baby boomers (not least because of the repeated Bob Dylan references), but the dubious remedies (or tranquilisers) to modern life hit home even if one was unfamiliar with office life. Carly Heffernan’s character was shocked that she was the only one suspicious that the yoga class she and her girlfriends signed up for didn’t seem like yoga at all (the moves seemed designed for a kindergarten ballet class, and the instructor was just too eager to help), but is mysteriously “converted” when she “feels it” at the sketch’s conclusion. The audience cracked up when a steamy exchange between two cast members became a succinct comment on consumerism. It concluded after a minute with the ubiquitous Levi’s line, “Jeans. Buy them.”
The cast’s ability to package weighty subjects into bite-sized sketches was again evident when two already exasperated teachers (Dale Boyer and Adam Cawley) tackled the “headache” of multiculturalism. As a primary magnet for Canadian immigrants, Toronto is a pastiche of cultures (think New York City and Singapore) and while diversity is touted as a virtue in tourism brochures it doesn’t translate quite as smoothly in the classroom. What is a teacher to say when: 1. A Chinese student, armed with more advanced Math techniques, ends up confusing her classmates instead of helping them. 2. An Indian student wants to play cricket, but the teacher is only familiar with sports involving nets. 3. A student wants to eat a dragonfruit, but the teacher is afraid of the fruit. So the exercise turned out to be far from therapeutic, but the teachers came up with a solution: build a “Little Canada” in Toronto where “we can do our retarded Math, eat oranges and play basketball.” Unsurprisingly the debate did not end there.
Overall, the show was an intimate affair. While guests spent most of the evening huddled around small tables swigging cocktails in the dark, ensemble members got guests in the act during the improvisational section, initiating a game of broken telephone across the theatre and bantering with guests (who turned out to be equally competent comedians). One guest was baffled as to why a sketch contained uncanny references to her life … until a screen revealed her Facebook profile page.
This party both celebrates and mourns that the times they are a-changin’ and it doesn’t have clear answers. But it whispers a word of wisdom — let it be.
This Party’s a Riot runs Tuesdays to Fridays at 8 and 10.30pm and Sunday at 7pm at The Second City Main Stage in Toronto, Canada.