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Review: New Second City T.O. revue takes on Trudeau, Trump and more (Includes first-hand account)

That turns out to be a good thing. In The Hotline Always Blings Twice, which opened earlier this week, the six gifted writer-performers and veteran director Chris Earle mine laughs from many unlikely sources in a surprisingly consistent show. Everybody in this cast gets more than a few shining moments — especially Picnicface co-founder Kyle Dooley, whose straight-faced demeanor and New Yorkish accents sometimes remind me of Rafael, the sarcastic clerk from The Simpsons. Newcomer Becky Johnson also stands out, winning laughs and sympathy whether she’s playing a second-grader, an upper-class wife with weird secrets or a drunken, overage Frosh girl.

Unusual for a Second City revue, Hotline has no improv or audience participation (except the usual free improv set following every show, of course), but it does try a few new things. There’s a lengthy musical sequence about Trudeaumania Part II that plays almost like the comedy equivalent of an old prog-rock epic by Genesis or Jethro Tull. It starts off with Johnson, Leigh Cameron and Kirsten Rasmussen playing a silhouetted horse representing Canada, with Dooley’s Trudeau mounting the steed as a heroic knight; it then morphs into a rock number, then a medieval ballad and then an auto-tuned pop song with Trudeau singing as a Justin Timberlake-style heartthrob. It’s a risk, but it pays off as satire of modern political celebrity.

Another one of the best sketches depicts the rise of the Uber cab service as a love triangle right out of a 1940s film noir. A tough-talking dame (Cameron) is leaving her old lover, Beck (Kevin Whalen), for hotter new flame Uber (Dooley), complete with fedoras and hard-boiled repartee. “Your [credit] machine is always down,” Cameron complains to Whalen, who snaps back: “I can get it up!”

And another funny, lengthy scene has Whalen bringing his nine-year-old daughter (Rasmussen) to a Blue Jays game, only to find themselves sitting next to a cynical lifetime Jays supporter (Dooley again) who can’t stop complaining about the fair-weather fans. “You weren’t here for the hard years!” he gripes, over and over — not just about the team, but about the hot dogs.

The first half of Hotline is stronger than the latter, which alternates between fair social satire and random silliness. Better bits in the second half include a dead-on lampoon of social media, in which Rasmussen decides to “thin the herd” of her annoying Facebook friends with a trigger finger worthy of Clint Eastwood, and a scene in which Whalen’s and Cameron’s panic about a house intruder evolves into a conflict about gender roles. A brief bit about a grade-school talent show taken over by overzealous dads is funny because it’s so true. Other sketches about a fortune teller (Johnson) with mischievous spirit friends and a weird blockbuster movie trailer are sporadically funny, but lack the spark and originality of the better scenes. (There’s one about a translator who tags along on a blind date and states what the other two people really mean to say; the premise is suspiciously similar to a sketch I wrote for a Second City writing class about five years ago… but nobody’s jumping to conclusions.)

As I said, current events, issues and trends play a big role in this new revue — Trudeau, Uber, medical marijuana, TV streaming services — although far from exclusively, and there’s plenty of more universal material as well. Etan Muskat opens the show with a monologue satirizing Donald Trump’s election platform, calling for Canada to build a wall to keep Americans out, while Whalen has a scene as a fully grown Syrian refugee presenting a Show and Tell in an elementary-school classroom, because all the ESL classes are full. The latter scene runs too long and wavers uncomfortably over the line between preachy and funny, but it gets its point across.

“I have freedom. You do too, but I appreciate mine,” says Whalen to the class. “One day, I hope to be a real Canadian and take it for granted.”

Overall, another night of fine comedy from Second City. You can’t always get perfection, but there’s a lot of good material here.

The Hotline Always Blings Twice runs at Toronto’s Second City Mainstage until July 3.

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