The Convention, at the Comedy Asylum | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Convention, at the Comedy Asylum 

Empty Promises

The Convention

at the Comedy Asylum

By Adam Langer

To say that political humor is dying would be generous. To paraphrase Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in The Untouchables, it's dead, it's dead, it's dead. It's so dead that even political satirists who used to be regarded as funny (Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer) seem barely humorous anymore. Never mind the stultifying comedy of hopelessly mainstream stiffs like Mark Russell and the Capitol Steps, Jay Leno in his late-night wisecracks, and Chevy Chase, who has said he swung the 1976 election with his portrayal of a bumbling Gerald Ford. Perhaps the problem is that political discourse in the waning years of the 20th century has become so devoid of content that there seems to be nothing left to satirize. Have you heard any good Bill Clinton jokes? Bob Dole jokes? Few comedians could possibly equal the ridiculous displays of shallowness, dishonesty, arrogance, and absurdity exhibited in a Clinton, a Dole, or a Ross Perot stump speech.

Of course, political conventions have certainly had their moments of drama and dark humor over the past few decades. The honorable Mayor Richard J. Daley yelling "fucker" and "Jew son of a bitch" at Abe Ribicoff, who accused him of engaging in "gestapo" tactics for quelling political demonstrators in '68. Harold Washington chewing out Ed Bradley on the convention floor, calling the CBS reporter "the lowest of the low." A stammering Jimmy Carter accepting the Democratic party nomination and paying tribute to "Hubert Horatio, Humphrey." Bill Clinton brushing away a crocodile tear as he recalled "a place called Hope." Pat Buchanan's insane battle cry to cultural war during the '92 Republican convention, which few satirists, however twisted, could equal.

The often preposterous political convention itself--with its hokey songs, vacuous speeches, monotonous chants, and shallow revelry--would seem to be ripe material for satire. And, to be fair, the producers of the interactive political comedy The Convention get a lot of the details right. They've got the glad-handing, thumb-wagging politicians, the overzealous advance people, the witless on-the-spot reporters, and the cheesy entertainers. The only components missing, really, are humor and drama. With the imminent arrival of the Democratic National Convention at the United Center, it would be hard to imagine a comedy as timely--but at the same time as irrelevant. What might have been a well-deserved knee to the groin of the American political process becomes little more than yet another nail in the coffin of purported political humor.

Devised in the tradition of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, The Convention has audience members playing delegates in the nomination proceedings of the fictional ICU (Independent Coalition for Unity) party. For the first half hour, which takes place in the bar of the Subterranean Cafe, delegates can suck back brews with unctuous political hanger-on Phil Hightower (a retired action-film star who graduated from the William Shatner School of Drama), gossip with peppy handler Ann Houseman, hobnob with reporters from NBS, catch a glimpse of the ICU candidates and their wives, learn state songs from the giddy party whips, and share a conspiratorial word with weed-smoking Abbie Hoffman wannabe Abbie Hayson.

The cast of 19 are quite skilled at this aspect of the show, working the room, greeting delegates, and mouthing platitudes. The trouble starts when the actors move from improv into scripted material, as delegates are shuttled up the stairs of the cafe to the second floor, where the former offices of Subnation magazine have been converted into a convention ballroom. In contrast to the facile but well-orchestrated confusion of the first-floor preshow, here The Convention feels flimsy, aimless, and padded. The party whips lead the delegates in some state songs, the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," and the ICU party song ("Unity! Harmony! We're the ICU!"); the party faithful sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee"; and an actor who's supposed to be Cher but looks and behaves more like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show vamps around the room singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The show becomes even more tedious during the party's platform presentation and nominating speeches for the Clinton-esque front-runner Richard Hartwood, the earnest but hapless Grant Lee Fillmore, and a surprise candidate picked from the audience. A drunk senator from Massachusetts mistakenly reads from his lurid memoirs instead of the party platform. A televangelist spews portentous gobbledygook. And a political operative utters flaccid apothegms ("We make mountains of molehills, but together we can move mountains"). Not only is the content weak, there's no discernible point of view here. Presenting a cavalcade of empty-headed pols, each with fewer distinguishing characteristics than the last, The Convention becomes less a critique of political vacuousness than a demonstration of it. By the second act, when the well-planned convention devolves into accusations of adultery and an assassination plot, it's difficult to have any more interest in the pols' shenanigans than one would in the characters in a board game.

Writers Andy Cobb, Bob Craig, and Chip Schubert have seemingly aimed to offend no one--a fatal error in political comedy. They primarily attack easy targets, frequently relying on funny names to get laughs, dubbing an anchorwoman Diane Sawmill, for example. Thankfully, Ann Filmer's fired-up direction distracts us, as do the frenetic "behind the scenes" squabbles that spill out into the audience and onto the streets, conveyed via live video "broadcasts" and the ultracommitted performances, especially by Christina Gausas as the all-business political handler Houseman, Chuck Quinn as way-shallow candidate Hartwood, and Bob Dawson as a meathead Secret Service agent named (ho, ho) G. Gordon Haldeman.

Unfortunately Filmer and her cast's efforts are largely in vain. Like the energy and commitment of placard-waving attendees of nonfictional political conventions shouting slogans for the naked emperors of their choice, all the enthusiasm here seems designed to cover up a decided dearth of ideas and imagination at the core of the show. The whole world might be watching, or maybe just 50 tourists in Wicker Park. Either way, there's nothing going on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of cheery couple surrounding by placard-waving sycophants from "The Convention".

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