For a comedy show, the Second City E.T.C.'s latest sketch revue, directed by Anthony LeBlanc, seems unusually poignant. The venerable theater's offerings—particularly on the main stage—have long saved room for little bursts of sentimentality, but I don't remember ever seeing a revue that felt quite as touchingly suffused with longing as this one does. We meet, among others, lonely online daters, roommates singing about the sorrow of parting when one gets a fiancee, and a fatherless tyke aching for a stepdad who'll play Dance Dance Revolution with him.
Even the title, Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?, while containing the customary groan-inducing pun, amounts to a kind of plea for human connection. If I had to name an overarching theme for the show, it would be that. There's a recurring bit about ordinary city folk trying to defuse a bomb, suggesting the production's six warm, affable writer-performers intend to file the whole thing under "anxieties of modern life" or some such catchall. But many of the sketches actually go deeper than that, touching on thorny subjects like our seeming inability to talk about race in a meaningful way, our dependence on technology that's supposed to help us communicate but ends up alienating us, and our yearning for an authentic, valuable, shared experience, any way we can get it.
That probably sounds kind of heavy, but the ensemble manages to make it funny too. In one early sketch set at Disneyland ("the happiest measles outbreak on earth"), two kiddie-ride employees—one black (Rashawn Nadine Scott), one white (Tim Ryder)—try to have a frank discussion about race, but they're interrupted every 30 seconds or so by a tramload of riders passing by. The remarks are cringeworthy ("I'm sorry about Ferguson," "So what's swimming like?"), but we sense on both sides an honest effort to find common ground amid the conversational land mines.
A scene about misremembering 9/11 flirts with absurdity and crassness before turning unexpectedly wise as someone makes the salient point that "it doesn't matter where we were—it matters where they [i.e., the victims] were." There's a similar blend of silliness, sadness, and bite in a Keystone Kops–like pantomime that ends with the shooting of an unarmed black child. At another point, the cast's two African-American members, Lisa Beasley and Scott, play two old-timers giving hilarious yet painful advice for surviving as a black man in America. You need only three things to live, they say: "food, shelter, and not getting shot."
If the goal was to capture the tenor of the times, the players have pretty much done it, and not just because they include a lot of jokes about smartphones (the best: a New Orleans–style funeral, complete with umbrellas and a trombonist playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," in honor of a commuter's cracked iPhone). It's scary out there, the show acknowledges, and the screens we've surrounded ourselves with only make us feel more alone. What we really want is to be comforted and understood and assured that it's all gonna be OK. In their goofy, goodhearted way, the cast even oblige us there, ending the show with a campfire sing-along to an original ballad by music director Alex Kliner, called "Hold On." v