Friday, October 21, 2016

Review - Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (or: The Peril of Choice) - The Recovery Party - 4 stars

It’s hard not to get political when writing about The Recovery Party’s latest offering, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (or: The Peril of Choice), because it sprang from the absurdity of a political conundrum.  We live in a country of abundance, but if that’s the case, then why do we have 27 varieties of Oreo cookies, and only two choices for President of the United States of America?  Already someone on the internet is screaming “What about third party candidates?”  The Recovery Party has an answer for Gary “What is Aleppo?” Johnson and Jill “I question the FDA/vaccines” Stein, too. (See? I fell the down the rabbit hole already.)

“I’m all for equality, but not if it’s something I don’t agree with.”

But we’ll set that aside for a minute because The Recovery Party didn’t set out to make an explicitly or exclusively political satire, though the underpinnings are certainly there throughout.  The Recovery Party set out to make something funny of the idea of having too many options, and something funny it very much is.  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is definitely about a first world, largely white, problem.  They wisely acknowledge this as well.  At one point, two of the ensemble become cranky old men, basically The Recovery Party’s version of Statler and Waldorf (“Go ahead, boy!  Funny it up!”)  And these old guys point out that it’s a little weird for a satire about choice to be performed by a cast of five white dudes.  But there you are.

“See that blue wire? Cut it - if you want to kill us both.”

Whether it’s too many wires to choose to cut in order to diffuse a bomb, too many radio stations all playing the same song, or too many pizza toppings, The Recovery Party skewers our society of excess.  Multiple choice can lead us through a maze if we’re trying to get healthy, or it can lead to the breakdown of critical thinking if you’ve got everyone insisting that you teach them a version of evolution that doesn’t conflict with their beliefs (even though their beliefs aren’t supported by fact).  A plethora of corporate sponsors can turn the names of locations and events into a word salad until names mean nothing at all.  If someone’s looking for a particular way of being thanked, or served, or taught how to do a magic trick, that rigid insistence can lead to disappointment and communication breakdown on all sides.  When a parent doesn’t want to face the fact that their child’s a spoiled brat, they can come up with all sorts of ways to spin it (but be honest, sometimes it’s a relief just to hear the truth, that your kid’s an a**hole).

“Parsley, sage, rosemary and anchovies.”

Writer/director/performer Joshua Will, musician/composer/performer Dennis Curley, and their fellow performers Jeffrey Cloninger, Eriq Nelson, and Jim Robinson power through a series of over two dozen rapid-fire scenes and songs that move seamlessly from one to the next.  Callbacks to previous characters, jokes and situations abound.  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a tight and very funny piece of writing.  The guys do just as well with the off-beat musical numbers as they do the scripted comedy scenes.  In pretty much every case, the songs sort of come out of left field, yet they’re strangely grounded in the satirical reality of the scenes out of which they spring.  There’s everything from a more traditional musical theater number (only this one’s a dad telling his son about the horrors and disappointments of love) to a full-on Bollywood number that springs out of car radio on a deserted stretch of road.  There’s some white guy rap, some acoustic guitar, a little something for every sort of amusement.

“It sure felt good but it didn’t feel right.”

The only place Why We Can’t Have Nice Things wobbles a little bit is in a series of scenes that center on a guy accidentally selling his soul to the devil and trying to negotiate to get it back.  Both God and Satan get tied up in this (alongside the devil’s minions, who all look alike so everyone has trouble telling them apart).  There’s a lot of funny material here, just like the rest of the show, but around the edges it starts to feel like each of the scenes goes on a little long, after they’ve clearly made their point and the original joke has landed.  It’s hard to tell if the show is just worried the audience might not get the point, so the repetition is necessary, or if it just doesn’t know there could be some trimming to sharpen things up.  And because the show wants to be sure to encourage you to get out and vote, it starts to stray into potentially unuseful (and unintentional) analogies where Donald Trump is the devil so then Hillary Clinton by process of elimination must be…

“Your double negatives shall be your undoing, sir.”

Maybe this is the one place where a white, Judeo-Christian lens is too limiting.  After all, there have been countless religions, gods and monsters throughout human history.  Even if you widened your scope to include just current mainstream religions, there’s plenty of material there.  Honestly it’s probably a whole other show, the peril of religion rather than the peril of choice.  The fact that the rest of Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is so intelligent and clever makes the simplicity of using God and the Devil as stock characters for a gag fall short of the character-based work evident in the rest of the evening.  But it means well, and it’s still funny, so it makes me inclined to forgive the misstep.  Like I said, that’s really the only time the smooth-running production feels just a bit halting and clunky.  They probably just need to put that particular piece of the cake back in the oven to cook a little longer.

“Improv.  Isn’t that where actors on stage make up little plays on the spot and pretend they’re funny?”

Overall, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is operating at a level of comedy and social satire quite a few notches above your standard comedy fare full of sex and fart jokes (come to think of it, I can’t recall a whole lot of foul language either, so, kudos for not taking the easy route, Recovery Party).  It kept me fully engaged for the entire running time and that’s not something I can say about a lot of theater these days.  (The place was packed the night I saw it and people were laughing their butts off all around me, so I wasn't alone in enjoying it.)  This also seems like a troupe that builds on whatever they’ve done before, learning and improving as they go.  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is already really good.  So I can only imagine what The Recovery Party has in store for us next.  Meanwhile, catch this show if you want a laugh, they’ve got plenty to go around. (through November 6, 2016 at Bryant Lake Bowl)

4 stars, Highly Recommended

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