EXPIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW
at the Westin Hotel, O'Hare
Evaluating a comedy revue is like trying to decide if a glass of water is half full or half empty. It's all in your point of view. No comedian is funny all the time, and neither is any comedy revue. There are going to be hits and misses -- that's just part of the game -- but is the show half full or half empty?
At first, I considered Expiring Minds Want to Know to be half full for one simple reason: it has a premise, a point of view. That may not sound like a lot to expect from comedy, but the lure of the easy joke is very strong. Even the people at Second City, once a bastion of opinionated humor, frequently succumb to the temptation, and make jokes instead of inspired comedy. And who can blame them? It's hard to be perceptive and insightful and ironic; it's easy to make faces and fall down and deliver gag lines. And people laugh either way, so why strain your brain trying to be brilliant?
Anyway, the premise of Expiring Minds is this: People believe the garbage they read in the supermarket tabloids because their lives are empty, meaningless, and dull, and the preposterous stories provide a crude stimulus. The people who believe that "Musical Baby Is Born Whistling Dixie" and "Bizarre Disease Makes Woman Eat Kitchen Sink" want to believe these stories. They want to believe that such weird things happen because weirdness adds a little excitement to their bleak existence. This will to believe, however, causes a lot of bizarre behavior.
The show begins with a litany of actual headlines from supermarket tabloids. "Liz Can Still Have Burton's Baby!" "Psychic Barber Cuts Hair Without Scissors!" "Angel Appears in Delivery Room and Takes Baby Back!"
The litany is part of the title song, which asks the question, "Does it ever cross your mind / That whoever is in control is a little out of control / And things are more than just a little bit out of whack?"
The premise comes into focus during the song when the six women take turns delivering monologues attesting to their will to believe. One is merely confused: "There just doesn't seem to be anything left you can really count on . . . well, of course there's gravity . . ." Another is an advertising executive: "With the right approach . . . you can make people believe anything you want them to." A third is a woman who bought the fake fingernails the advertising executive is promoting, and a fourth believes the spots on her carpet mean something (they appeared right after she gave up caffeine).
The lyrics pick up on this idea: "Everything I ever thought I knew I don't know anymore / Everything I ever thought was true ain't so anymore / It seems that half the world's insane and what isn't insane is inane."
By this point, barely five minutes into the show, I was sure Expiring Minds would be brilliant. The premise was so clear and true that it was funny all by itself. Any elaboration would have to be hilarious. This glass of water is definitely half full, I thought.
Alas, it's also half empty. Yes, there are some funny lines: "Whose idea was flavored douches, anyway?" one woman wants to know. Some of the skits play off of the play's premise. A soap opera character bursts from the TV set and confronts the grumbling, alcoholic housewife who has been heckling her: "I work like a dog trying to fill up your empty life," the actress sneers, "and what do I get? Chattering during crucial scenes, and then whining because you missed something."
And the songs, by Mark Houston, are consistently nutty and clever.
But the show never becomes as wicked and irreverent as the premise behind it, and that's too bad. A good idea is a terrible thing to waste.
The show was developed by six women and two men who opened a workshop production in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1986. The show was so popular that some of Houston's songs were picked up by National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Offers to produce the show came in from cities all over the country, but Wes Payne and Michael Leavitt managed to snare the revue for the performing space they recently acquired -- the Rose Theatre in the Westin Hotel, O'Hare.
Five of the original women are in the show -- Christine Brandt, Rosanna Coppedge, Valerie Fagan, Sandee Johnson, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. They are talented comediennes, and the sixth cast member, Chicago actress Deborah Johnson, is their equal in every way. Under the direction of Steve Scott, they set a snappy pace that supports the manic tone of the material. And the four musicians -- Anthony and Ed Mongillo, Steve Jennings, and Dave Miller, do justice to Houston's music.
But as the show drifts away from its premise, its humor becomes aimless and dull, despite the talent of the actresses and the musicians. One skit, for example, inspired by the headline "Severed Head Lives for Six Days," is about a woman who keeps such a head in her kitchen, on a platter, where she can talk with it whenever she wants. Now, since sex appeal is considered essential for a meaningful life by many women, a woman without a body is a very funny situation that ties directly into the premise of this show. Many of the ads in the supermarket tabloids are aimed at women looking for a quick, painless way to become more appealing to the opposite sex, so what kind of revelations await a woman who must go on living without a body?
Unfortunately, the skit doesn't go in that direction. In fact, it doesn't seem to be tied to the premise of the show at all. It just provides an opportunity for a few silly jokes that lead up to Wilson's song, "Get Proud of Me."
The authors of Expiring Minds apparently want to be known for their inspired weirdness, but the humor often verges on the offensive. "Divas of Motown," for example, is about six female opera singers who want to combine "the classical voice with the rhythmic power and mass base of funky Negro music." The result is a schizophrenic song: "Tristan! He's a mean mother-fucker! Wotan! He's a mean mother-fucker. . . . If rhythm's what makes you happy bro, then rhythm is what we got."
The idea is wonderfully preposterous, but the mimicry of black music made me uncomfortable. That's how it is with other skits and songs, such as "The Real Thing," in which the women recount what they learned about sex from their Barbie and Ken dolls. Yeah, there's something funny about watching Barbie and Ken fornicate, but without a strong point of view, it's just a gag.
It's hard to distinguish wicked satire from mockery, irreverence from vulgarity. It depends on how you look at things. That's why I'm reluctant to pass judgment on this show. If the glass looks half empty to me, it might look half full to you, although I think we'll both agree that something's missing.