Speaking ill of the dead in Roast | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Speaking ill of the dead in Roast 

A comedian requests a roast in lieu of a wake in Harry Wood’s debut play.

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In lieu of a traditional funeral service, a young comedian asks for a livestreamed, no-holds-barred roast of honor to be performed by his colleagues and family at his wake. Complicating what could otherwise be a cathartic act of irreverence is the fact that the entire lineup is bitterly estranged, and his cause of death—suicide—makes it unclear if honoring wishes he made during an acute mental crisis is really healthy for anyone involved.

Harry Wood's debut play, presented by director Derek Bertelsen and the Comrades, makes real a fairly universal dark fantasy that taps into the comedian id trifecta of self-flagellation, self-indulgence, and tonal irony. Though not explicitly inspired by real headlines, it's impossible not to be reminded of the spate of stand-up industry deaths in recent years, and how Wood handles that fraught dramatic and comedic territory here is mixed; few of the broadest gags, like prerecorded ad bits and a cartoonishly stiff funeral director's emcee work, really land. But some performances cut through, like a eulogy from a veteran industry manager (Kelli Walker) pleading for guidance on how to better help those under her wing.

At the concept level, there are some legitimate laughs in Wood's one-act, like a performer unironically plugging his podcast in front of his friend's casket, and a mortician—having only met the roastee as a corpse—resorting to insulting material inspired solely by his body on a slab. But much of what does work here is steamrolled by magnified performances that iron out any interesting wrinkles of subtlety the premise would seem to call for.   v

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