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Review: Second City’s latest mixes good satire with easy applause (Includes first-hand account)

Clapter, a term that Meyers supposedly coined, is the studio-audience response that late-night political comedy shows like The Daily Show, Full Frontal or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert often get when the host makes a strong statement that he or she knows the audience is going to agree with. The line isn’t necessarily funny or even a joke – it’s just designed to cue applause and cheers like a Pavlovian trigger, and it’s too easy. Smart satire often challenges you to see the absurdities of a certain view of the world (and scores bonus points if it’s your own view); it doesn’t preach to the choir.

Now, I’m not saying that Party Today, Panic Tomorrow, the new Toronto revue that opened last night, doesn’t have some smart satire in it. But take the moment when Ann Pornel raps about being called a “bitch” by a random man in public and then eggs the audience on to sing along and applaud her angry response. Except for the ending, it’s not really meant to be funny; it’s just about cheering on her empowerment. (Besides, wouldn’t it have been more interesting and daring to depict the actual scene she describes, instead of telling about it?) Other scenes – one with Allana Reoch leading a spin class, another with Pornel, Reoch and Nadine Djoury talking about the odd idiosyncrasies of their bodies – work well for a while and then resort to fishing for clapter. Even if you like those moments, you still miss the irony and scathing commentary of Second City at its best.

Directed by Leslie Seiler – who did such great work as a writer and performer in past revues like Barack to the Future and 0% Down, 100% ScrewedParty Today is never dull, but in terms of themes and ideas, it’s all over the place. Although the title hints at the uncertainty of the future in a world under the chaotic watch of Donald Trump, the show’s targets range from the nuclear threat to social media, apathy, urban life, privilege, marriage and relationships, advertising, sports fans and ’80s teen movies. There’s not as much about Trump as you might expect; maybe he’s become too depressing to be funny now.

The revue’s strongest and funniest scene, for me, is a game-show parody called Wolves, in which host Devon Hyland confronts contestants Colin Munch, Brandon Hackett and Reoch with bad things they’ve been caught doing (not allowing an elderly person to have a seat on the bus, or just not liking Wonder Woman) – and then having the audience vote on siccing actual wolves on them. “He had a daughter,” Hyland says with a shrug after Djoury and Pornel maul a contestant to death offstage.

This sketch works as a perfect satire of the 2010s trend of online public shaming on Twitter (the kind that has ruined the lives and careers of Justine Sacco and Tim Hunt, for example), making you laugh while you question your own complicity in modern mob justice and wonder whether the named and shamed really deserved it. Jon Ronson would approve, I think.

Party Today is also best when it eschews social commentary and frees itself just to be weird or silly – like in a scene about a girl (Reoch) who drops and bruises her banana (Munch), which turns out to be sentient, and they go into a musical number about bruises both literal and emotional. The cast makes good use of its improv skills in a toga-clad reenactment of The Trojan Women – with constant product placement by a brand name suggested by the audience. There’s a funny recurring joke about YouTube viewers being distracted by goofy animals while horrible disasters abound in the real world, and Hackett has a great scene as a pop star who keeps accidentally offending his audience in each subsequent video apology.

And Reoch and Pornel shine in a touching late scene about a father who can’t stop talking about baseball even on his daughter’s wedding day. “I love… the Blue Jays,” Reoch says as the father, expressing paternal affection in the only way he can. (I’m not sure why Seiler and the cast chose to gender-swap the father here, but does it matter?)

Reoch, of The Beaverton fame, and Djoury of Newborn Moms make their Second City debuts here, and Djoury shows a fine talent for timing and versatility with character, whether she’s playing a child, a mother using Skype the wrong way or a plane passenger with limited English. Not to ignore the other five cast members, who all have their big moments, but I hope to see more of her in future revues.

A quick-moving show, Party Today, Panic Tomorrow has a lot of material packed into its relatively short running time. And while a handful of scenes feel a bit derivative or uninspired, there are also moments of hard-hitting satire too. I just hope Second City continues to understand the difference between laughter and clapter – and leaves the latter for the late-night TV hosts.

Party Today, Panic Tomorrow is running for an extended engagement at the Second City Mainstage in Toronto.

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