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It’s easy to imagine Bennett’s audaciously clever lads getting up in front of Hector’s class to perform something that’d look a lot like what the Reduced Shakespeare Company is up to at the Lansburgh. In fact, RSC’s The Complete History of America (Abridged) represents a perfect synthesis of Mrs. Lintott’s rote historical learning (the RSC guys know their stuff), Hector’s penchant for pastiche (the songs and allusions fly fast and furious), and, mostly, Irwin’s use of rhetorical razzle-dazzle to butcher a few sacred cows (bad puns and the Holocaust: perfect together).
Seriously, what is left to say about these guys? Their shtick don’t stink: The jokes (many of them begrimed with the dust of ages) come at you at a breakneck pace, wrapped in a below–the–Borscht Belt, anything-for-a-yuk sensibility. They’re funny the lion’s share of the time, and even when the jokes go south, the performers don’t give up on them. In fact, they seem to relish the challenge of wringing laughter out of groans and hisses, and because those moments offer glimpses of real spontaneity—something found in relatively short supply in a show about to celebrate its sweet 16—they tend to succeed.
Which is not to say that the show’s chestnuts—skewering late arrivals, World War I doughboys facing down the audience with water pistols, Lucy Ricardo vs. Fred and Ethel Rosenberg—aren’t still funny. And indeed, whenever the three company members (a professorial Austin Tichenor, a sardonic Jerry Kernion, and Dominic Conti filling the dumb guy slot) get closer to current events, the knives tend to lose their edge. I think we can all agree that Anne Heche jokes, for example, have enjoyed their cultural moment. An extended Obama vs. Clinton audience Q&A also felt particularly slack, but then the questions pitched by my fellow audience members (“Did you like it when you came to my high school?”) weren’t exactly A material.
The Complete History of America (Abridged) is in rotating rep with another RSC show, The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), so in either show you may or may not catch the same actors I did. But don’t let that stop you: What the Reduced Shakespeare Company offers is more of a brand experience than a conventionally theatrical one, and they’re backed by more than a decade of quality control.
That said, the second act’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” joke is overdue for a product recall.