Separation of State and Division at the de Maat | Comedy review
Earlier this week I stood in line at the Starbucks in my neighborhood behind two thirtysomething ladies who had their hands gripped around over-sized baby prams. When one of them finished her overly specific latte order with a request for "a drop of soy milk for color," I swore I'd already met these women before. I had, actually. Eerily similar versions of them appear in Separation of State and Division, a fine new sketch show that pokes fun at the fears and desires of city folk and plays Saturdays at the de Maat Theatre through July 28.
Separation of State and Division is directed by Chemically Imbalanced Comedy executive producer and cofounder Angie McMahon as part of the Second City Director's Program. According to Second City's course catalog, the director's program aims to immerse its students, "in a program that covers the unique and specific skills required to work as a professional director for the Second City." As such, the revue plays like an embryonic version of a Mainstage show—in both good and bad ways. On the one hand, when you're directing in the Second City mold it means a certain format will likely be followed: Write a dozen or so scenes, throw in a few musical numbers, add a couple blackouts for pacing and drop in an interactive improvised sketch or two (although there were none here) and you've got yourself a show. (I keep waiting for the legendary theater to surprise me the way it did, for example, with its genre-busting 1992 e.t.c. revue The Heliotrope Players' Production of Thornton Wilder's American Classic, Our Town, as Directed by Eric D'Blakemore or Cash Stations of the Cross). To that end I give McMahon credit; this does indeed look and feel like a Second City show.
Where I would instead render judgment on Separation of State and Division is with the quality of the material. What I very much liked was the specificity in the humor and the way it lampooned urban people like the aforementioned Starbucks women. Whereas the e.t.c. and Mainstage would never name-check the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square (because who in Naperville has ever heard of it?), McMahon gladly takes us to these precious North Side hangouts populated by the kinds of people we know so well. In a recurring sketch, we see two pampered mommies playing an ongoing game of one uppmanship, one boasting to the other that her toddler is hosting, "a yoga retreat for activists under four." In another scene, a couple grow bored of the dog whose sole purpose is to complement their yuppie lifestyle. This sketch was clever, mostly silent and beautifully paced.
A couple of sketches made me groan. In one, a minister or justice of the peace can't wrap his head around how normal the two women he's marrying are. "Who will be the man?" he asks, referring to the kinds of clichéd questions hetero people once reserved for their same-sex counterparts. This joke might've been funny 20 years ago, but even the most homophobic among us have moved beyond gender stereotyping queer people into heteronormative roles. Ditto a meandering sketch in which the Blackhawks undergo sexual-harassment training.
Still, a blackout scene that riffed on Alien to make a point about the current war on women was sharp and pointed satire, and an obsequious salesman at the fictional Namaste Furniture in Andersonville again took aim at the trend-sucking dilletante in all of us. That scene and many others reminded me a lot of the IFC show Portlandia, and don't we in Chicago deserve our own version of that?