Here’s something new to worry about: I have it on good authority that, for the first time, every single member of the Second City main-stage and E.T.C. ensembles has national representation. What that means is that you no longer have to distinguish yourself in revue after revue to attract a heavyweight agent’s attention—simply gaining access to one of the elite Second City stages is considered enough to guarantee big-time showbiz viability. And what that means is that there’s less incentive—less economic incentive, anyway—for good performers to stick around Chicago long enough to get better, before moving on to some fabulous sitcom berth. Or to bring their A game to the revues they do write and perform here. Think of it as the professional sportsification of sketch comedy. I figure we’ll eventually find ourselves watching productions in which the cast spend two hours standing around, texting their people.
But not just yet.
The current E.T.C. show, A Clown Car Named Desire, presents six sketch artists giving what looks an awful lot like their all. Bodily. As directed by Ryan Bernier, Clown Car‘s main virtue is its intense kinetic energy. There are dance numbers, for chrissake, including a surprisingly cool one done in the dark, in outfits with luminous piping a la Tron. One short, silent interlude is about nothing but Brooke Breit and Mike Kosinski flailing full tilt while being attacked by the birds they’ve been feeding in a park. Another inexplicable yet amusing bit of slapstick-cum-modern dance involves a laundromat beset by clowns. And the physical-humor high point of the evening comes in the form of an extended sketch featuring Breit, Kosinski, and Chris Witaske as clerks at an American Apparel store, throwing their bodies into elaborate hipster poses.
The American Apparel thing turns out to be a satiric high point, too. Working desperately to outcool the others, one clerk claims to have moved on from brakeless fixed-gear bikes to a handlebar-, tire-, and seat-free model—only to be trumped by Witaske, claiming that his new ride is a wheelchair.
It’s an amusing exchange, but there’s something a little melancholy about the fact that it—along with a great piece about a visit to the health-care professionals at Walgreens—signifies the ultimate in social thought as far as Clown Car is concerned. If the show touches on subjects ranging from gay acceptance to Second Amendment crazies, it definitely prefers goofiness as the way to handle them. Punctuated by outbreaks of sentiment and the occasional gross-out joke (wait till you find out what Papa Smurf did on his date), the evening ends up feeling slight. And also, by the way, strangely retrograde with regard to women’s parts: a couple of them revolve around the character’s longing for a guy, a couple more suggest old-style scratch-her-eyes-out feminine competitiveness. It’s an odd note for a venue like Second City E.T.C., especially given the stereotyping-be-damned roles Katie Rich, Holly Laurent, and Tawny Newsome are taking on in the latest main-stage production, Let Them Eat Chaos.
But it may have more to do with inexperience than worldview. All three of the women in Clown Car are newcomers to E.T.C. Breit makes herself vivid by reveling in body language, while the other two—Carisa Barreca and Punam Patel—do some nice work here and there but remain a little vague, a little lacking in texture overall. It’s possible that we’ll see less reversion to cliche as they settle in and this revue evolves toward the next.
Meanwhile, the upperclassmen are well suited, for the most part, to the physical tack the show takes. Lanky, long-legged Kosinski can evoke anything from a sweet nerd who’s too big for his chair to something akin to a drugged spider. And with his characteristically deadpan expression, Michael Lehrer gives an impression of Keatonish stillness in the midst of tremendous motion—much of it his own. The only one who seems out of place is Witaske: he clearly wants to be the clown but looks way more like the ringmaster. It’d be nice if they all stuck around a while longer.