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Review: ‘#Throwback Time’ yields mixed results for Toronto Second City (Includes first-hand account)

#Throwback, which opened last week, tries hard to mix a social conscience with a sense of the absurd and goofy – sometimes with success. The better sketches either incorporate a strong message in a way that supports the joke or don’t bother with a message. A few others push too hard. Second City alum Rob Baker takes on the director’s role for the first time, and he encourages this young cast (four newbees and two returning members) to stretch out scene premises to their limits, and occasionally beyond them.

The centrepiece of this revue is a clever parody of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that takes on the Trump immigration mess in the United States. Natalie Metcalfe, as Elliott, hides an illegal “alien” (Alan Shane Lewis) from government authorities and her MAGA-hat-wearing father, eventually biking him to the Canadian border with her friends. This scene works as satire and also evokes nostalgia for the classic Spielberg flick, thanks to the John Williams music and Metcalfe’s Elliott-like red hoodie. But this bit takes a sudden, uncomfortably preachy turn at the end, in a tonal shift that undermines the joke. Deliberately, but that doesn’t mean it works.

Another strong sketch has Chris Wilson and Clare McConnell on a dinner date, unsure how to confront a loudmouth restaurant patron (Tricia Black, sporting a fake trucker moustache) who’s harassing the server (Metcalfe). The scene rewinds back in time over and over as Wilson and McConnell try different approaches – all of them disasters, many ending in punches to the jaw. It’s hard to know how to respond properly to such a situation, no matter how progressive or woke you think you are, so anyone can relate. The sixth cast member, Sharjil Rasool, gets his biggest moment in a song about using the bathroom – or rather, using it as a refuge from a world where he can’t stop making idiotic social faux pas.

Other good scenes: Lewis as a drill-sergeant-like McDonald’s manager, barking orders at his crew before they take on messes left by “drunk 905ers”; Black as a young lesbian returning from Conversion Therapy Camp; and one in which Wilson plays a cop interrogating Rasool, frustrated that his prisoner doesn’t conform to any of the classic terrorist stereotypes (“Nicknames are for white serial killers!”). There are a few funny pantomime bits – like one in which McConnell and Lewis play waving inflatable tube people who fall in love at a used-car lot.

But #Throwback also has its share of standard, routine sketches and blackouts, plus a few bits that seem to be straining more for virtue signalling than for laughs. An early sketch depicts an exam in high-school Canadian history class where the right answers are sanitized, official ones that avoid unpleasant truths like First Nations genocide or John A. MacDonald’s racism. Here, the writing often feels more like a checkoff list of social injustices than like a comedy scene. Later, Black has a song about how she’s a “bad lesbian” in all the stereotypical traits, but very good at one important thing; this bit starts off funny, but carries on too long, well after you’ve gotten the point. The “rewinding time” gimmick gets an unexpected callback in a late scene about a couple (McConnell, Wilson) struggling to break up. It works for a few times, but also goes on beyond its best-before limit. A funny sketch about a safety lecture aboard a plane suddenly breaks out into a ’90s dance party for no apparent reason.

The revue also tackles climate change in a strange bit with Rasool and Wilson as slightly deranged TED Talk-style hosts, holding up a blue balloon representing Earth and threatening it with a pin. Once again, the message seems shoehorned into the comedy to some degree, but the pair still earn some laughs with their demented repetition of “DO YOU SEE? DO YOU SEE?”

It’s the cast that makes this show work as well as it does. All six players get their chances to shine, and they do. My favourite is McConnell, who fills the Inflatable Tube Person scene with wonderful facial expressions and physical grace. Black is great in the Conversion Camp sketch, Rasool has a reliable high energy, and Lewis has explosive moments that often work very well. Meanwhile, Wilson has a knack for playing clueless jock types or authority figures; he’s like the go-to source for portraying while male privilege.

#Throwback is an uneven revue, and maybe that should be expected from someone making his Second City directing debut and a youthful sextet of writers/performers with relatively little Mainstage experience. I’d like to move forward in time, rather than back, to see what this crew can pull off in their next effort.

If I Could #Throwback Time is running for an extended engagement at the Second City Mainstage in Toronto.

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