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“We never wrote the show!” cry the actors in This Is the Week That Is at Plays & Players Theatre, opening with a skit about striking in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America. The gambit would have been funnier if it hadn’t seemed ever more likely to be true as the evening wore on.
The annual comic variety show, created by Jennifer Childs, producing artistic director and cofounder of 1812 Productions, is earnest, energetic, and out of touch. On its website, the company describes This Is the Week That Is as “sharp satire” and “a hilarious mix of SNL, The Daily Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.” This year’s production is neither, although the show has gained enthusiastic followers over the past 17 years who are still loving it.
A night of name-checks
Admittedly, trying to make an evening’s worth of funny skits out of today’s news is a daunting and possibly futile undertaking. In a short making-of documentary from 2019, we’re told that the ensemble typically creates the show in just three weeks, changing it nightly during the run in response to the headlines. Clocking in at nearly two hours with one intermission, this year’s production consists of a barrage of ideas and name-checks. The work might be improved if the writers had spent more time developing fewer ideas—their own ideas. A quip about Taylor Swift dating Travis Kelce, asking why she couldn't have dated a climate scientist instead of an NFL player, is plagiarized: the comment was made by Dutch actor and climate activist Katja Herbers on Wednesday, October 4, and caused a furor when reposted by American actor Olivia Wilde.
A neon-outlined Philadelphia skyline forms the main backdrop, but the local angle is underused for humor; the city’s pride in its idiosyncratic swagger is largely absent. Much is made of generation gaps, and a recurring theme is technology versus the communication tools of yore. In spite of the flimsy material, most of the performers shine, and the fast-paced production moves along smoothly. Pax Ressler (also the music director and arranger) and Lexi Thammavong are impressive singers, elevating the musical numbers. A political spoof to the tune of “Cell Block Tango” is sharply written, and a medley about fed-up orcas, the stars of recent headlines on sinking luxury ships, is appealingly over-the-top.
Wanted: actual jokes
The audience, mostly older people at the Thursday, November 30 show, seemed familiar with the show, shouting comments when invited to participate, singing along, and laughing continually. We all deserve to enjoy a laugh, but This Is the Week That Is isn’t for those who like their satire to be satirical. In a sketch about book-banning, for instance, the ensemble attends a sort of grief-counseling group session in costume as books. The skit doesn’t quite make sense or offer any jokes. Other acts, like an elaborate piece populated by anthropomorphized obsolete technologies, have little to do with current events.
During a news segment anchored by Sean Close, a weird interlude involving “yoga girlies” is almost too bizarre to be offensive. An item about Henry Kissinger’s recent death, however, was certainly offensive. The premise of the joke: the US hasn’t learned to stay out of unwinnable wars, despite Kissinger’s example of negotiating the end of the Vietnam War. Representing that guy as a peacemaking do-gooder? Inexcusable.
Toward the show’s end, Childs offers a turn as her recurring character, Patsy, a South Philadelphian. She has a funny line. Then Ressler leads the ensemble in a lovely rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and many in the audience sang along, with feeling. To me, This Is the Week That Is was baffling, but its fans were clearly happy.
What, When, Where
This Is the Week That Is. Created and performed by Jennifer Childs, Sean Close, Pax Ressler, Jackie Soro, Lexi Thammavong, Robyn Unger, and company; codirected by Melanie Cotton and Mikaela Boone. $44-$53. Through December 31, 2023, at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 592-9560 or 1812 Productions.
The main theater at Plays & Players is wheelchair-accessible, but restrooms are accessible only by stairs.
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