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Pants on Fire

Second City E.T.C.

People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election.

--Otto von Bismarck

Let's review the situation. We've got an unelected president who behaves like Cotton Mather with nukes. A vice president who appears to be running several multinationals out of his office. An attorney general who metes out justice on the Dante principle ("Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"). A faith-based deficit. And a new ministry of information called Fox News. The secretary of state is either a patsy or a liar; the secretary of defense, either Bismarck or Satan or both. And if the Iraq war proved anything, it's that a large chunk of America's news media can be bought for the price of a ride in an armored personnel carrier.

In short, things are bad. And so thank God for satire. Not just because it supplies a pleasant alternative to unremitting impotent rage but because, in times like these when conventional purveyors of information are actually expected to lie, it offers the possibility of a little truth. I tell you, the only news source I've got any confidence in these days is The Daily Show.

And now the new Second City E.T.C. production, Pants on Fire. Directed by Joshua Funk, this 25th E.T.C. revue declares its genially subversive attitude right off the bat. A skit that opens the show and recurs throughout has Ari Fleischer holding his final press conference, announcing that he's at last ready to tell all. What's the real reason for the Iraq war? a reporter wants to know. "We're taking over the world," Ari shoots back. What about Bin Laden? "We made 'im up." You don't have to believe it to believe it; the effectiveness of the bit--its horror and humor--derives from the fact that Fleischer's revelations don't seem all that far-fetched. The only real surprise here is the idea that he'd actually say this stuff.

But that's the point. Simply by asking a classic comic question--what if people stopped lying for a minute?--Funk and company are able to create a sometimes hilarious, occasionally chilling picture of a society that can't afford to be as free as the truth can make it.

This sodium pentathol approach is the leitmotiv of Pants on Fire. In one skit a young bride and groom turn their wedding vows into a depressingly candid description of the likely trajectory of their marriage. In another, Mom gives her newly matriculated--and astonished--daughter an unusually honest overview of the extracurricular pharmaceutical and sexual knowledge to be gleaned from four years in college. Still other skits expose the subtexts that we all know lurk just below the surface of certain government policies and personalities. A newscaster, for instance, reports on the progress of Disney forces in Basra. And in the evening's most viciously funny passage, an assembly at John Ashcroft High School brings out certain, shall we say, proclivities shared by members of a tightly wound faculty.

Not everything in Pants on Fire plays off the lying theme. There's a remarkably lame send-up of Cirque du Soleil in which two grown men act like six-year-olds clowning for dad's video camera, to no discernible purpose. (As cliched as it sounds, it takes a lot of skill to do stupid-looking physical clowning, and people who haven't developed that skill always end up looking stupid for the wrong reasons.) More successful is a bit set at a meeting of Dictators Anonymous that segues into a parody of a production number from the musical Chicago: though its rationale is almost as murky as that of the Cirque piece, physically it's much more coherent.

The Cirque and Chicago pieces are fruits of Second City producer Kelly Leonard's long-term campaign to add some body, as it were, to his shows. Where past productions were famously cerebral, this one's positively bombastic at times--vividly lit, energetically scored, but most of all athletically choreographed. Nyima Funk is ideally suited to this developing aesthetic, supplementing her comic presence with obvious dance training. It's she who gives the Chicago number its coherence.

Lanky Keegan-Michael Key also has impressive physical skills--though not as a circus performer. He contributes marvelous characterizations of everything from an Iraqi at a church meeting to a high school coach with a particularly jagged edge. Sam Albert's verge-of-tears basset hound eyes serve her well as the sort of mother who not only reads her daughter's diary but corrects it, while Andy Cobb's all-purpose white guy makes him an absolute necessity in various sketches. Jean Villepique struck me at first as nondescript, but her series of appearances as the daughter to Albert's diary-correcting mom are cumulatively endearing. Peter Grosz may have many fine qualities, but he must never sing in public.

Still, despite his singing, I'm grateful to him, I'm grateful to all of them, for a little truth in bad times.

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