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Welcome Back to the Future takes its title from a sketch in the show that leaps right into the current culture wars and centres around a group of comedians complaining about how they can’t tell edgy jokes any more.San Veliz/Second City

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  • Title: Welcome Back to the Future
  • Director: Paloma Nunez
  • Actors: Tricia Black, Andrew Bushell, Natalie Metcalfe, Nkasi Ogbonnah, Hannah Spear, Chris Wilson
  • Company: Second City Toronto
  • Venue: Comedy Bar Danforth
  • Year: To March 1, 2022

Critic’s Pick

Second City has returned to live performances in Toronto with Welcome Back to the Future, a (mostly) new revue that is one of its funniest in recent memory.

Unlike many of the city’s other reawakening in-person entertainments, the sketch-comedy institution can honestly say it’s been out of commission for the past year or so for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. Condo construction, not the coronavirus, chased it out of its most recent downtown location at the end of 2020.

Now, as it awaits the completion of its new permanent headquarters at the bottom of condo development One York Street (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em), the storied Toronto troupe has taken shelter in the smaller, cozier environs of a just-opened Comedy Bar location on the Danforth, near the Main Street subway station.

Second City, which has had many homes in Toronto since expanding here from Chicago in 1973, has never set up shop east of the Don Valley, never mind on the edge of Scarborough. But why not be within spitting distance of the old stomping grounds of comedy legends from Mike Myers to Lilly Singh?

Welcome Back to the Future takes its title from a sketch in the show that leaps right into the current culture wars and centres around a group of comedians complaining about how they can’t tell edgy jokes any more.

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Left to right: Natalie Metcalfe and Tricia Black in Welcome Back to the Future.San Veliz/Second City

A mad scientist (Tricia Black) shows up with a solution: a time machine. What unfolds is a clever twist on a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario, as the time-travelling comics then encounter a parade of Canadian politicians from different eras (all played by cast member Nkasi Ogbonnah) who don’t have the same sense of humour as them.

The sketch is a well-executed demolition of the term “political correctness,” and if its targets seem a little easy at first, it has real bite when it returns for a reprise.

There aren’t that many political scenes in the show, but Ogbonnah, a Black cast member whose strengths clearly lie in satire, is at the centre of another memorable one.

Ogbonnah and Chris Wilson, a white cast member who is the rare sketch standout who also knows how to support, play an interracial couple attempting to spice up their sex life with role play. Her suggestion that she pretend she is white and he pretend he is Black leads to a number of scenes-within-the-scene that skirt serious stage taboos. The sketch is then smart to end with a punch to the gut, rather than a punchline.

Welcome Back to the Future isn’t quite edgy enough, mind you, to include any jokes about Second City’s own reckoning with systemic racism – one that played out in the public in the United States but mostly behind closed doors in Canada and led to old leadership leaving and the sale of the comedy brand to new ownership during the pandemic.

The coronavirus is not ignored, however. There’s a short, sharp bit that addresses it head on, poking fun at the hoops you have to jump through to have fun these days. But the pandemic is more often there in the background or subtext of sketches that circle around anxieties specific to this time: our disturbingly deepening relationships with technology (with Wilson hilarious as a laptop); the awkwardness of our return to human-to-human interactions; even the increase in sleeping difficulties affecting so many.

A lullaby sung by Black and Natalie Metcalfe to a baby who turns out to be the last child born on Earth is perhaps the darkest in the show. It channels fears about the future while also showing that us humans will basically adapt to and accept anything that comes our way. Adding piquancy to the sketch is the fact that Metcalfe is, as she said at curtain call, five months pregnant; hope springs eternal.

Welcome Back to the Future features sketches new or nearly new – the last Mainstage Revue had an extremely short run because of, you know – and a fair bit of improv.

Results will vary of course on the last front, but the simpler the conceit, the funnier the execution seems to be. Elaborate set-ups involving divorce lawyers and news anchors felt a little flat, but a simple game involving audience members completing the sentence, “Sex with me is like …,” demonstrated just how quick-witted all six of the current cast can be. The ones I haven’t mention yet are Hannah Spear (who plays an excellent cat) and Andrew Bushell (memorable as the host of a, literally, nightmarish game show called Toss and Turn).

Paloma Nunez’s direction is assured throughout, making sure scenes end crisply, and that truth is never sacrificed for an easy laugh.

A final note on the location: The COVID-19 cautious will want to know that the Second City’s temporary new home is not as high-ceiling or spacious as the previous one on Mercer Street.

On a sold-out opening night, it felt pretty crammed, truth be told, and the majority of audience members weren’t wearing masks. No judgment on that front – spectators are allowed to be maskless as long as they are eating or drinking – just a piece of information some would-be ticket buyers will want.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.

Editor’s note: (Dec. 13) An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Andrew Bushell's name. This version has been updated.