L ast September, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and was asked about the president's obsession with fake news. Spicer took a breath, futzed with his jacket, and explained how news has moved beyond "true or false" and into an arms race for the truth adjacent. "They'd rather be first than right," Spicer said of modern journalists. "That's unfortunate, and it gives a bad name to those who actually do take the time."
The cast of Second City's excellent new E.T.C. revue agrees. Gaslight District posits that online junkies would rather get their news "first" even if it's incomplete, because they can't afford patience and because facing the truth is a terrifying proposition.
In a recurring bit, one of the actors will turn to the audience while the rest of the cast freezes. This is the zone of truth. The character will say how he or she really feels, then turn back and let the scene continue. It's a pretty standard stage device. But when Andrew Knox takes his turn in the zone, he slams into an invisible wall. Alone and faced with this therapeutically healthy conceit, he immediately begins pounding his fists against the wall, begging to be let out.
The truth hurts, and the show's characters hide pieces of story, sometimes even from themselves. Cubemates at an office embellish their weekends. An immigrant conceals the reason why he's eager to be deported. Over at Office Depot, an employee shares his dream with his boss of ditching the stapler aisle because he just wants to dance, even though he knows full well that he doesn't have the drive or the chops even for backing up a superstar.
The cast's quick wit keeps scenes from falling into maudlin territory. The jovial Sayjal Joshi appears as an ICE agent in the deportation sketch, and gamely plays along with the Mexican immigrant who turns himself in. In another sketch about a couple's confrontation over whether they should marry, Joshi deftly hops from comedic bickering with her boyfriend into measured, sincere dialogue with him about the ramifications of engagement. This loaded conversation takes place, of course, once the two enter the aforementioned zone of truth together.
Since this is a Second City revue during the Trump Administration, we naturally have to talk about politics. Thing is, there's not much of it in Gaslight District, and what there is mocks all sides. Sure, the Oompa Loompa in chief makes an appearance-played by Knox, whose vocal impression is uncanny—but so do whiny, do-nothing protesters accompanied by a tepid battle cry: "Who are we?" "Democrats!" "What do we want?" "Equality!" "How do we want it?" [Unintelligible shouting.]
Even the improvised material remains relatively bipartisan. In an early segment the cast solicits an audience suggestion and demonstrates how pundits can spin something as simple as "dogs"—which was the topic at the performance I saw. Two morning-show anchors highlight the fluffier side of a dog-related news piece. Cut to Fox News and the familiar blind vitriol and incessant shouting. Finally, two NPR hosts introduce themselves thusly: "Hi, I'm a sentient pair of glasses." "And I went to Vassar." Their take on the topic eschews straightforward reporting for interviews with academics and long, winding This American Life-type stories, neatly showing how folks living in the liberal bubble avoid the truth with tangential information as often as right-wing pundits grasp at conspiracy theories.
That sketch, and a few others, can drag on a bit too long, but the show's pace is tempered by quick, outrageous bits. Emily Fightmaster takes the stage in full tinfoil garb, belting out a hopeful tune as a gender-neutral alien. And, boy, the elastic dance moves of Jasbir Singh Vazquez electrify not only the staff at Office Depot, but the real-life audience. And though its premise comes off as a downer, a sketch that takes place in a hospice care facility manages to be one of the funniest in the show.
Gaslight District doesn't deal in caricatures. It isn't Saturday Night Live, where Alec Baldwin can make a face, repeat the week's Trumpisms, and win an Emmy. Nor is it one of the many late-night talk shows where writers scurry to make light of the day's events. It's the equivalent of Jimmy Kimmel's interview with Sean Spicer. It constructs characters who are reeling from the whiplash that comes from trying to determine what's actually true when they're bombarded on all sides with opinions and assholes. The show lets them step back, peer beyond the headlines and the Facebook feeds, and take the time to get it right. v