The Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life Second City E.T.C.
Putting up one of the best Second City sketch revues in recent memory takes a perfect storm. First off, you need a cast that can hop easily from deep satire to lighter fare, and from there to rich scenework. And you need a point of view. In the case of the new E.T.C. show, The Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life, it's an overwhelming frustration with the state of our country that's got ensemble members making like Glenn Beck and reflecting on better days. The crucial last piece is the right director—and Billy Bungeroth's rock 'n' roll sensibility is what gives this show its killer groove.
Though Bungeroth's a rookie at E.T.C., he's no stranger to Second City. He's directed one of the touring companies for years and served as assistant director on the 2008 mainstage revue, America: All Better! (Second City is good about promoting from within—a smart policy, as proven by the ongoing success of another up-through-the-ranks director, Matt Hovde, whose credits include Rod Blagojevich, Superstar!) Bungeroth also plays guitar with local group JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, and The Absolute Best moves with the staccato rhythm of a rock show. Jokes come fast and pack a wallop, song harmonies are tight, and the dance moves for an homage to the Rubenesque female figure are in-your-face snappy. There's not a second wasted on that stage. Even some purposeful silences—like the one that greets a stepdad when he oversteps his bounds with his new family—linger just long enough to make their point.
The stellar cast, half E.T.C. freshmen and half veterans, keep up with Bungeroth's beat and add some brazen notes of their own. Cartoonish Brendan Jennings swings his body with reckless abandon and generates gushers of spit-takes. Beth Melewski gives herself permission to make some pretty offensive comments in a scene that compares a wannabe rocker mom to Anne Frank—among other things, they both went to "camp." Deadpan Tim Baltz goes blood red with rage playing an Obama-hater-cum-velociraptor. The sense of controlled chaos is nicely encapsulated in a second-act bit triggered by Jennings's admission that he never went to his senior prom. With a willing volunteer date plucked from the audience, he gets a whirlwind chance to live the night he never had—posing for photos, dining at an Olive Garden, and competing for the prom-king crown against a depressed kid called Suicide Tom.
Under these circumstances, changes in tempo have a hell of an impact. One scene has Baltz making a pass at his social studies teacher, played by Mary Sohn, whose character initially rejects the proposition. But then she pauses to consider how the relationship would unfold and we suddenly see her experiencing the butterflies of a girl being asked out by the guy she likes. A similar transformation occurs in a scene featuring Christina Anthony, who's black, as a worker showing her disdain for a colleague, played by Tom Flanigan, who's white. I'm not going to give away what happens next, but it turns a standard scene about racial tension on its head and stops Bungeroth's drive for a moment, opening up some room to breathe before the rhythm takes hold again.
Many riffs are tinged with nostalgia for what Baltz's morning zoo deejay calls "that magical time when the 80s became the 90s." Characters refer to Melissa Etheridge and Tupac Shakur. But this is about more than just the period detail. At the top of the show, cast members are given the chance to relive signal moments from their lives—hence Jennings's prom and Baltz's supposed tryst with his teacher, not to mention the show's title. And who can blame them for looking back when the prospects they imagine for the future include a Sarah Palin presidency in 2020?
The show ends, fittingly, with a song. The cast and Bungeroth have plunged into the past only to reach the conclusion that it's the present that matters. Maybe that's the case. Years from now the elements and people that created The Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life may be forgotten. But at this moment, they're coming in loud and clear.