The Polarizing Express: Dysfunction Junction running at The Brave New Workshop until January 27th provided exactly the laughter I expected and needed before entering a tough tech week in my own theatre life. This ensemble sketch comedy show featuring the current BNW cast of Taj Ruler, Lauren Anderson, Heather Meyer, Denzel Belin, and Ryan Nelson is loosely framed around the idea that the first characters we see — passengers taking a train home for the holidays. Each “stop” is a sketch about the holiday season. Many the sketches focus on the family dysfunction and distaste for our hometowns that marks so much of the holiday season for so many of us. There’s also a sketch loosely centered on the Whoville world of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and a few other random bits of hilarity.
In a comedy ensemble this strong, it’s hard to stand out. The Brave New Workshop is incredibly judicious in their casting. It’s meant to be the best of the best in the improv and sketch comedy world. The cast devises the show together and all get an ample amount of stage time as various characters. Nonetheless, Belin, Anderson, and Ruler all have moments that shine beyond the rest of the show. Belin gives us two musical numbers that were two of my favorite scenes in the show. The act one break was one such song, in which Belin played a character bringing his boyfriend home to his conservative family and trying to hide the truth while having fun. Belin later became a cowboy dive bar singer lamenting how barren and backwards the small town we go home to for the holidays is. Ruler generally makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts in anything she does, and this show was no exception as she bitterly laments how effortlessly another character pulls together perfect Christmas décor and presents (among other sketches). Anderson lets her star power shine early in the show as a mom who’s gone from a strict, easily angered parent to “new mom” who’s relaxed and willing to try new things when her adult children come home for Christmas. Meyer and Nelson have great moments too, and together this ensemble provides a wonderful night of comedy. Jon Pumper as Musical Director becomes part of the action too sometimes, providing unexpected charming, funny moments.
As with any sketch show, not every sketch hits for every person. There were a few gentle laughs, characters that fell flat, and groan-worthy puns. That’s almost part of the fun of a Brave New Workshop show though. Comedy when it doesn’t work, still somehow works when in the hands of such gifted artists. Even if you disagree with that sentiment, there are more than enough laugh-out-loud moments to smooth over the parts that don’t hit for you. There is undeniable chemistry among the performers that makes the whole evening feel electric, especially as they come back for a surprise third act of all improvised sketches. The holiday season is so often so stressful, and The Polarizing Express: Dysfunction Junction provides exactly the break from the season you’d hope for.
I was surprised and excited to be contacted about coming to review a show from a queer perspective at The Brave New Workshop, but I was a little bit nervous too. I trust Belin as an artist but have had a lot of bad experiences regarding representation in comedy. The Polarizing Express is definitively not a queer show, but there is a lot of content that is hilarious and relatable to LGBTQ+ audience members. For me the show shined the most not when characters where outright queer, although the aforementioned musical number was a highlight, but when various characters recounting the agony of visiting relatives and cities that don’t see or understand us anymore. I ran screaming from The Bible Belt a decade ago, and every visit back has felt surreal and nightmare-ish despite my deep love for certain people there. I would argue that one of the queerest sentiments there is around the holidays is “Ugh, I don’t want to go back there.” The Dysfunction Junction crew takes us back there, but provides a surprising catharsis absolutely full of laughter along the way.
My only warning to people seeing this show is that there are a lot of jokes and even whole sketches centered around drug use and abuse. This is not a criticism of the show, but it does mean that for LGBTQ+ community members living in sobriety or struggling to do so, this may not be the show for you. Please take care of yourselves if you do choose to go; the show is very good, but there are a lot of potential triggers regarding drug use.
The Polarizing Express: Dysfunction Junction is already on its feet and running through January 27th at The Brave New Workshop Theater right on Hennepin downtown. Something about the holidays makes me want to be right in the middle of the city in spite of myself this time of year (I blame every Christmas romantic comedy set in New York for this), so even the location adds to your holiday cheer. Tickets start at just $20, and are available here.