Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As the title implies, much of the focus this time around is on the economy, in particular the return of that dragon that had been slumbering for decades–inflation. Each of the four cast members have a turn as a wise (and also licentious) Benjamin Franklin, donning a goofy white powdered wig of founding father vintage in a series of attempts to explain inflation. These efforts are comically debunked by the others in the cast and bolstered by a rousing show tune with the jolly refrain, "no matter how you slice it, we're deeply, truly fucked". In one particularly biting sketch, two well-heeled suburban gals meeting for lunch, bemoan the state of the economy and the superficial indignities it has visited upon them–one of them having to cut down her family's annual stay in Sedona from four weeks to a measly three–while their waiter tries in vain to tell them what real economic hardship looks like: "I had to cut holes in a Target bag for underwear!"
However, inflation is far from the only topic skewered by these four intrepid performers: long-time cut-up Lauren Anderson, who announced on stage that this is her fiftieth Brave New Workshop show; returning cast members Denzel Belin and Doug Neithercott; and, making her first Brave New Workshop appearance, Isabella Dunsieth. Other topics skewered during the two acts include the aggressive resistance by the right wing toward what they decry as political correctness in the form of a game show called "Go Woke, and Go Broke," recently legalized (in Minnesota) THC-laced edibles, an attempt to buy gasoline up in the north woods from a freaky gasoline boutique, and an extended–and terrific–sketch pitting super-heroes based on women's physiology against certain Supreme Court justices.
Longtime Brave New Workshop artistic director Caleb McEwen keeps it all moving at a brisk clip, sometimes inserting one sketch within another to maintain a sense of connection among the disparate parts. In my past visits to the comedy theater, there were five actors in the show, as opposed to the four in Cheaper than Gas. The reduced scale diminishes the possibilities somewhat, with one less personality contributing to the merriment, and limiting sketches to four characters on stage at a time–though often an actor plays multiple parts within a single sketch.
That said, the current cast of four meet the challenge of lifting the show off the ground with a mix of wit, playfulness, bravado, and share will of force. Anderson maintains her crown as the Brave New Workshop performer willing to be the most outlandish, balancing bombast with a subtlety that can earn laughs with the mere lift of an eyebrow. Belin is almost a match for Anderson in his ability to let it rip, and he comfortably projects a dollop of sex appeal into the mix. Both Neithercott and newcomer Dunsieth also do terrific, if not quite as showy, work. The four meld together as a well-oiled comedy ensemble.
Like all Brave New Workshop shows, production values are minimal, though there are some clever conceits in costuming and props. Music Director Jon Pumper provides a steady background of wittily selected underscoring on piano, along with several full-out songs. In fact, the show opens with a fun sketch that suggests we could handle all of our national and world crises if we simply would sing about them, like in the musicals. The scripted show runs two acts, just under two hours. There is a "third act," which is improvisation, and the audience is welcome to stay and enjoy that as well.
It must be said that taste in comedy, as in any art form, varies and the crew of This Show Is Cheaper than Gas: America on Empty certainly work their heinies off to win over the audience. Based on the Saturday night crowd with whom I viewed the show, they largely succeeded. For myself, there were regularly occurring peaks of hilarity coursing over a terrain that would be better described as robust chuckles. All in all, This Show Is Cheaper than Gas: America on Empty is an entertaining package and a welcome opportunity to laugh at the news and at our fraying social fabric that most of the time is more likely to make us weep.
This Show is Cheaper than Gas: America on Empty runs through January 30, 2023, at Brave New Workshop, 824 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $18.00 - $36.00. Discount available for seniors (65+), military personnel and students with ID. For tickets or information call 612-332-6620 or go to theatre.bravenewworkshop.org.
Written and Performed by: Lauren Anderson, Denzel Belin, Isabella Dunsieth and Doug Neithercott; Director: Caleb McEwen; Musical Director and Pianist: Jon Pumper; Technical Director: Matthew Vichlach.