The six spritely, mercurial, wholly engaging performers behind Second City E.T.C.'s Apes of Wrath work overtime to make their show appear to be about something. But just what remains a mystery. And an unnecessary one at that.
Press materials describe the two-hour sketch comedy review in vaguely dystopic terms. "In the world of high stakes, we become a more heightened version of ourselves," the PR asserts, "which can sometimes resemble more simian behavior than human." Despite the syntactical tangle, the point seems clear: this will be a series of skits about our baser selves, in which "the dark and light sides of our human devolution" will be showcased. Except for the most part, they're not. Unitard-clad performance artists improvise poetry about the World Cup and cigarettes for inmates at Louisiana State Prison. The Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies, on a collision course, seduce each other by singing about their impending billion-night stand. The attention-span-challenged BuzzFeed staff try to concoct daily lists with social significance, like "The 15 Vegetables That Don't Make Me Greenhouse Gassy."
Perhaps the show is actually about making peace with 21st-century existential angst. The evening begins and ends with the performers in the dark, holding illuminated globes and rhapsodizing about human and cosmic origins. And several of the sketches grapple with our species' need to believe in future certainties, even as we overstate our importance in any future, certain or no. In one of the evening's highlights, a group of CTA riders stranded waiting for "signal clearance" sing an anthem to human self-absorption entitled "We Are Insignificant." But then there's the skit with the pediatrician who uses a surrogate patient to unleash his contempt for his actual patients who won't vaccinate their newborn. And the extended scene in which an emotionally barren housewife tries to get her robot servant to love her.
The unsustained effort to fashion some sort of thematic cohesion creates a low-level irritant, as though we're repeatedly asked to find more in the show than the creators managed to inject. And it can detract from even the best scenes. Eddie Mujica's crafty improv with the audience—he's a Cuban entrant waiting, like the rest of us, to take his naturalization exam—is pointed, poignant, and insouciant (on opening night he went off on an extended jag with an audience member from Miami, making jokes entirely in Spanish). But when it's all done, it's hard to avoid wondering what it's got to do with devolution or the cosmos.
So if you're going, the best course to take through Apes of Wrath is one without trajectory. The great majority of the two-dozen skits are well observed and tightly executed, thanks to the cast's effortless precision and director Jen Ellison's ferocious pacing (the few skits that meander and peter out are over in a minute or two). Apes may overstay its welcome by 30 minutes, but it's full of isolated marvels. And that's about all a show like this needs.