I've wondered about this since a junior high choir trip, when, at an Olathe Long John Silver's staffed mostly by people who were developmentally disabled, I found myself roundly jeered for asking "Wow, they're all retarded?"
I'd meant it as mere description. But I caught hell from the choir kids all small-town, big-hearted and, most of the time, brashly insensitive. These were kids who passed bus rides with Too Short raps and rants about who and what they considered retarded. Pretty much everything lived up to that designation, from gym teachers to Ewoks. Everything except the folks to whom the word actually refers.
These days it trips constantly from the mouths of people thirtyish and younger, who relish its minor sting. But though good people may unleash it to describe ugly hats, anyone applying it to a person is an asshole even though, without this root meaning, retarded would be as dead as lame or grody.
Kincaid's thinking about this, too.
In This Corner is the local playwright-actor-rock guy's second Westport Coffee House show. It examines whether it's possible to enjoy saying awful things but still be a good person.
And doing awful things, too. But I won't spoil Kincaid's surprises.
The story concerns smug columnist Micah (Jake Walker), a pontificating ass, and his girlfriend, Hope (Shawna Journagan, a first-timer who's almost ready), and their painful discoveries about who they really are during a weekend visit from Micah's younger cousins. One cousin is developmentally disabled is this the term we all agree on? from a childhood head injury; she's tended by her angry young brother, Andy (the fantastic Cordes), who suffered Micah's bullying back in the day, serving as punching bag and occasional pupil.
It was dangerous to include the debilitated cousin (Courtney Stephens, not overplaying it), but Kincaid handles it well, using her sparingly, focusing less on her affliction than he does on everybody else's believable discomfort around her. This he nails. Andy is her put-upon minder, shouting a riotous "Goddamn it, Cheri!" every couple of minutes. Hope talks over and under her. And Micah lectures her, applying his critical judgment even to her crayon work. At one point, Andy lights into the world's reluctance to say retarded, defining the word and then holding up Cheri as its exemplar.
Sometimes they forget she's there, and we do, too, caught up in the show's real engine: Andy's anger at Micah.
The cousins arrive after a flatly acted opening, and Cordes takes command of the stage. His Andy is agitated and uncomfortable, lost in his long-limbed frame. He berates Micah and woos Hope, getting the best of both even though he's just 16. In Andy, Kincaid has created a quick-witted kid disgusted at humanity's pettiness but not above indulging in it himself; coming from Cordes, all the cheap insults and even cheaper romantic hooey are searing.
Kincaid crafts rich scenes, compelling characters and surprising jokes. He also wrestles honestly with real themes. That said, things wrap up too quickly. And he writes himself out of tricky scenes: twice, right when he's lunged at the heart of the matter, the lights black out, and we're on to something else. This includes the climactic confrontation between Andy and Micah, which gives way to the aftermath and a long monologue that we know is important, even though it doesn't seem to matter now that the feud's settled.
It all got me thinking. The one thing the kids from my hometown considered most retarded was grown-ups who told us we weren't "living up to our potential." Kincaid has probably never heard that before, and he certainly shouldn't now. Despite some stiff acting and the occasional pulled punch, In This Corner isn't just the work of a promising talent. It's an achievement in itself, up there with the Unicorn's Next of Kin, that other savage comedy from a KC boy made good. KC comics are also making good at Comedy City, home of the superb sketch troupe Monkeys With Hand Grenades as well as the long-running Improv Sports show, which, with its predictable audience suggestions and corny cast enthusiasm, still feels like Mad Libs with the Applebee's wait staff. This isn't the case with 2 Much Duck, a one-weekend-a-month improv show (catch 'em at 10 this Friday or Saturday) that proves unscripted comedy is a legitimate art form.
Spinning a single crowd suggestion for a good 90 minutes, the Duck crew builds ideas and characters in real time, nudging notions into full-blooded scenes loaded with deep, strange laughs. Last month, working from the word hobo, all five players were at the top of their games, the air around them bristling with invention. Highlights included Andrea Woody as a woman who couldn't help but invite homeless men home, Steve Jones and the incomparable Rob Grabowski (a dead-ringer for Phil Witt, and all the funnier for it) as two losers trying to get work as a falcon act at Medieval Times, and Josh Steinmetz as not-your-average hobo: "You saw me skateboarding!" he shouted. "I'm gifted! Next time you have a party, I'll do your entertaining!"
It's endlessly mutable, with bad ideas tossed and good ones blooming into something new and then something new again. Most improv shows truck in the Jay Leno ordinary, inviting us to laugh at the same things crowds always laugh at. Thankfully, 2 Much Duck is weirder, more personal and challenging. It's also a lot funnier.