BWW Review: The Second City's NOTHING TO LOSE (BUT OUR CHAINS) at Woolly Mammoth
The Second City established itself as an improvisational comedy theater troupe in Chicago in 1959 and has spewed out dozens of top comedic talents (and a couple of other theaters) since.
So one expects nothing more than laughs when an original show called "The Second City Presents: Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains)" takes up residence at Woolly Mammoth.
Since it's written by and stars Felonious Munk, who was part of the Second City's hit last year at this time at Woolly Mammoth, "Black Side of the Moon," one expects more of the same: sharp, topical sketches with edge and a little to think about as well.
But "Nothing to Lose" is much different. While it has some of the quick moving blackout scenes and recurring fake commercials one might expect in a comedy revue, it's largely a story about Munk's own story - when he was Dennis Banks, raised by a single mom in Newport News, Va., and sentenced to a 32 year sentence for shooting a man who stole his drug profits.
He served six years of the sentence, got out and sold cars before entering the standup comedy field with a name that's a jokey knockoff of a jazz legend's.
And while he does a bit of standup in service of telling his story, it's the story that takes over. And in addition to his truth telling, he uses the tools of the theater (and direction by Anthony LeBlanc) to ruminate about the kinds of things he probably thought about in jail: What if things had been different growing up? What if his dad stuck around? What if he were given up for adoption and raised by a well-to-do family? What if he made different choices? Maybe if he had not sold drugs? Or had tamped down his revenge tendencies against the robber?
He and his ready troupe - Angela Alise, a highlight from last year's show, as well as McKenzie Chinn and Calvin Evans - play dozens of other characters in all of the various approaches. Odinaka Ezeokoli plays his conscience, who hangs around and chastises his choices, like half of the angel and devil representations in old Donald Duck cartoons.
It is Ezeokoli's character who admonishes Munk for being so arrogant as to expect the audience to recognize his name. But he could have also poked him for being a bit indulgent.
His story does represent to a degree some of the barriers in the African-America, but it's super specific, down to various interpretations the movie that was playing when he took his act of revenge, "JFK."
It's always refreshing to hear someone tell his own story in his own words (rather than have an outside playwright try to present his interpretation of it). But the line between comedy and reality gets a little shaky. In fact, by act two, the laughs are pretty much gone.
Munk has more than a few strong insights in his narrative but I wonder whether everybody is getting it. His quips about the rapper Future floated over the head of the older, whiter, traditional theater audience on a recent weeknight.
And whether it sparked further conversation, I can say that the most discussion during intermission was the highly confusing all-gender restrooms at the theater and the man who walked into the one that wasn't clearly marked for women.
One thing about the comedy background is that means nearly every scene is short and too the point. Until some longer monologues in act two, nothing is too long.
The set by Colin K. Bills seems at first only functional, but its windows and lights, and overhead crossing wires all subtly add to the setting (and his own lighting).
Jesse Case' sound design is a wonder, mixing hip hop and found sound in a swirl that perfectly reflects the narrative.
"Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains)" has all good intentions going in and may well land with audiences. It's greatest achievement is that of its author, who rose above the past to be honest with himself on stage and find room to joke a bit about it, every night of the week.
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes, with one 15minute intermission.
"The Second City Presents Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains)" runs through Dec. 31 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets at 202-393-3939 or online.