The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's two-week showing of The Second City's "Happily Ever Laughter" Tour is a bracing and boisterous comedic feat. With a cast of only six performers, the roughly two-hour production is entertaining and unpredictable, rapidly shifting from skits to puppetry to audience interactions and the Second City hallmark: improv. The approach is similar in vein to "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" which itself has featured Second City alumni like Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles. "Happily Ever Laughter" was familiar enough that the audience on Thursday, May 1, instantly picked up its constantly shifting rhythms, yet it was inventive and weird enough that they were laughing in their seats the entire time.
With over two dozen skits in its two hours, "Happily Ever Laughter" is as much a juggling act as it is a comedy show. The skits are thematically all over the board, from the surreal and satirical to the romantic and touching. Equally scattershot are the characters. In two acts we see everything from selfish office employees and mystical carnival workers to embittered roleplaying couples and even a few Arkansans. References to the Ozarks, the Razorbacks and Flying Saucer, among a few others, throw some casual ribs at the audience, which responded well. The real satirical bite is saved for politicians, whose loose ethics ("Sure, I'll talk about the ethnics") and love for political attack ads ("Is he against gay marriage? Well, he did marry a woman.") are skewered in a handful of left-leaning skits aimed at fans of fellow Second City alum Stephen Colbert.
As all manner of oddballs, weirdos and social freaks are paraded and parodied onstage, it takes serious comedic lunacy for anyone to stand out. Enter one Sarah Shook. This woman is wholly committed to making a fool of herself onstage, be it as a "catfishing" victim whose face deforms into a sobbing sea creature, a raging death metal enthusiast or a Miley Cyrus-style "independent woman." Shook and her captivating facial contortions are a consistent bright spot, even among a company of five other very strong performers.
The closest one might find to weak spots here are the musical numbers. Little is offered in the way of vocal performances or choreography, but the lines are delivered clearly enough for each of the jokes to land. There are hardly any faults to be found in the improv, but considering how wide-ranging the topics of the skits are, it was mildly disappointing to see a later scene devolve into yet another innuendo-laden porno spoof.
A minor misstep here or there? Maybe. But a full two-hour set without any real bum jokes and with a totally satisfied audience would make any Second City alumni proud.
"Happily Ever Laughter" runs at the Rep through May 10 with performances at 7 p.m. and, on Friday and Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $35.