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From left, Sarah Hillier, Kevin Vidal, Craig Brown, Connor Thompson and Allison Price, in Second City’s Sixteen Scandals.

Second City

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Sixteen Scandals
Written by
Ashley Botting, Craig Brown, Sarah Hillier, Allison Price, Connor Thompson, Kevin Vidal
Genre
Comedy
Directed by
Chris Earle
Actors
Ashley Botting, Craig Brown, Sarah Hillier, Allison Price, Connor Thompson, Kevin Vidal
Company
The Second City
Venue
The Second City Mainstage
City
Toronto

Sixteen Scandals is a very "meh" title for a comedy show.

Don't get me wrong: I do love a movie-related pun and was even once on a curling team called Curl Interrupted (starring Winona Slider). But this reference to a 30-year-old John Hughes film is too single-layered, too clean. It doesn't announce itself as funny and dare you to either chortle or harrumph, as the best bad puns do; it sounds like the title of a political journalist's mid-career memoir.

Luckily, the title of the latest Second City revue is the only thing average about it. Under the direction of Chris Earle, the current cast of three women and three men have constructed a sketch-comedy Wunderkammer, full of well-crafted oddities that should appeal to nearly every individual's idea of strange and amusing.

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Indeed, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, the first proper sketch even finds a way to approach the Rob Ford situation with inspiration and inventiveness. In an Etobicoke home, a man (Connor Thompson) has an old pal from his downtown days (Craig Brown) over for beers – and tries to convince him to move out to the suburbs. But then this familiar conversation suddenly turns sinister: "No, you'll move to Etobicoke … or else."

"Or else what?"

"Or else we vote for him again." (Bum, bum, bum – Matthew Reid provides the appropriate movie sound effects from a synthesizer at the side of the stage.)

The idea that the Rob Ford mayoralty is an elaborate plot to reunite men with the friends they miss from their swinging, single days is kind of genius. It provides a fresh frame for a series of downtown-versus-suburban jokes as pleasing in their familiarity as a Buzzfeed photo gallery of toys from your youth, while also being touching in illustrating the length men will go to not express their love for one another.

Gender-specific foibles are always a reliable basis for comedic sketches – though today's comedians seem to raise stereotypes only to undercut them. Here, we get Ashley Botting, Sarah Hillier and Allison Price as brainless dudes in basketball jerseys, objectifying recent dates in the locker room and talking about how "bitches be crazy"; obviously, there's going to be a twist – and because of its obviousness, the inversion is not as funny as it intends.

But the physical audacity of these female performers does manage to make this sketch ultimately hilarious, as the characters mime what are actually the actors' own body parts with ribald ingenuity. Hillier, recently promoted to the main stage, is the most astonishing of a very talented trio – a shortish redhead, whose body seems to have the ability to fold in on itself like an accordion and parody itself. As skilled as she is at funny faces and contortions – and she's great later as the goblin wife of a businessman, and an elderly ghost haunting a cruise ship – it's the paradoxical tone she can conjure that's most impressive. She somehow seems both blissfully unaware and self-aware at the same time, a comic dimension I've only ever really seen Will Ferrell inhabit comfortably.

The men in this Second City troupe are less bawdy and usually head in wittier, word-based directions in search of humour – that is, safe directions. Even when they appear in dresses as middle-aged women (they're under investigation for shoplifting chapstick at a Target), the comedy is more verbal, the physicality tentative; there's a certain nervousness about straight drag these days, a fear of stepping on sensibilities, I guess. If women are outpacing men in the Toronto sketch scene, I suspect it's because the men – and white men, in particular – have lost the element of surprise. Look at the pale, slightly gawky body of Craig Brown, for instance, and you won't be shocked to find him in a sketch escaping from his wife by hanging out in a black hole.

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A black man on a stage full of white people is an element of uncertainty, however – and it goes mostly unexploited here. Kevin Vidal only really capitalizes on his body's difference in a monologue where he plays a father confronting a son who has come out of the closet – as black. The premise is a little too on-point, and being the only bit in the evening featuring an unseen character, it stands out like a sore thumb; it's too contained and isolating. (Oh, I should add: An off-handed reference to Toronto shooting victim Anthony Smith in an all-white sketch must be cut; it's sour.)

Other than the initial references to Rob Ford, scandal as a theme is primarily tackled in a satirical song – which also, happily, turns out to be a spoof on satirical songs. (My favourite sketches, like my favourite comedians, are those able to fold in on themselves.) We love scandal, it is posited, because it makes us feel better about our lives – and, simultaneously, distracts us from actual problems that affect our society. Sixteen Scandals does both, even while it doesn't; a laugh-out-loud night, but not escapist really at all.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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