While last year’s Twist Your Dickens largely satirized Christmas in popular culture – Charles Dickens, TV specials, etc. – this year’s show, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Sweater, takes aim at holiday traditions in the lives of everyday people in the real world, from awkward gift exchanges to office parties and the winter weather. The revue, which opened on Monday, gives you pretty much all the elements you want in an evening of Second City, including improv, audience participation, silly songs, quick-as-a-flash blackout gags and some harsh social satire. And most important of all, it’s funny, even if a few of the sketches have predictable premises or recycle ideas the comedy company has used before.
As directed by Karen Parker, Sweater alternates between over-the-top absurdity and scenes based on common real-life scenarios. On the former side is a hilarious running gag featuring Christian Smith as a creepy Elf On The Shelf statue that keeps reappearing in different spots when the lights go up, even among the audience. Another great scene has Clare McConnell and Natalie Metcalfe as neighbours carelessly, then purposely, shovelling snow into each other’s yards – a duel that morphs into a pantomimed action-movie sword fight, complete with Matrix-esque “bullet time”. The entire cast takes part in a musical number about swaying “orphan trees” that don’t get picked at the the Christmas tree lot – which, in this case, is called Chris Pine’s Christmas Pines.
There’s more domestic comedy in other scenes, like the one with Smith and Jillian Welsh as a couple who realize they barely know anything about each other once the power in their cottage goes out – leaving them without Internet or cable access to distract them. Gift-giving is satirized in a scene about two elderly ladies on walkers (McConnell and Metcalfe) who have made ridiculous personal sacrifices to give each other presents, and in one in which PHATT al’s gift for his girlfriend (Welsh) can’t live up to the Super Bowl tickets she got for him.
Christmas in modern office culture makes appearances too, such as in a funny scene about three co-workers (Smith, Metcalfe, Josh Murray) torn between leaving work early for the holidays or staying for possible bonuses. (Smith’s character claims he doesn’t celebrate Christmas because he’s “gluten-free” and keeps confusing holiday traditions with the plot of Home Alone.) And hypocritical holiday charity is savagely skewered in an ensemble song called “There’s Only Homeless People at Christmas” – dismissing the holidays as “The only time of year we care,” and mocking the notion of “thoughts and prayers” as a sufficient sacrifice.
More confusing is a rap number by al and Welsh, playing wrapping paper and a bow, preaching about the virtues of recycling and reusing wrapping paper. (Wrap! Rap! Get it?) I’m not sure whether the message is meant sincerely or ironically here; it just reminds me of those corny Saturday morning PSAs that used to air between the cartoons in the 1980s.
Performance-wise, I’d put Welsh at the top of Santa’s nice list – mainly for not one, but two great roles as kids. Welsh goes full-tantrum all over the floor as a bored little girl on a holiday shopping trip who just wants to go home while her dad (Murray) keeps getting distracted by small talk with an acquaintance (al); her commitment to this bit is wonderful and hilarious. She also plays a shy second-grade student in a Christmas school recital, with Metcalfe and McConnell as other kids and the males as their overbearing fathers in the audience.
Other cast members show fine chemistry with each other in two-hander scenes, such as one with Smith and Metcalfe as a hyper-Canuck pair addicted to Corner Gas and Tim Hortons and curling, or one with McConnell and Welsh as co-workers who discover a mutual attraction after an office holiday party, or the old-lady scene with McConnell and Metcalfe.
As holiday revues go, Sweater doesn’t have the high energy or the richness of Twist Your Dickens. (A handful of this year’s scenes, in fact, have nothing to do with the holidays.) But while last year’s show revolved largely around the improvised antics of star Seán Cullen, this one relies on ensemble cooperation, and all the cast members contribute their share of laughs. It’s a fun night of comedy that celebrates and mocks the things we love and loathe about Yuletide.
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Sweater runs at the Second City Mainstage until January 5.