Second City

The press, desperate to save the endangered art of satire (after all, Spy has folded), regularly thumps the third city’s Second City troupes for selling out to tourists and suburbanites. But that same need to preserve an endangered art is also why we must give credit when they hit more than they miss, and especially when the targets are difficult. Though the main stage’s 78th show, Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been Mellow?, isn’t the Promised Revue we’re awaiting–the risk-taking one that solidly rewards hard listening–it’s free of boneheaded skits and blessed with some dramatic and comic inspiration and swift interplay between the unmellow seven cast members.

Of course there are some easy targets (Prozac, unisex bathrooms, Chicago’s undermotivated schoolteachers, “Dr. Death,” Fabio) and easy sight gags (Secret Service agents hiding). Unexpected are strange charmers like “Maya,” a sweet spin-off of Prelude to a Kiss: a white man turns into a kindly old black woman whenever he returns to his hometown, and to his amazement, so does his buddy. By the end they–and we–are delighted by the goodness they trigger in townsfolk who cherish them for what they’re not. And a devastating depiction of a grade-school spelling bee from hell is classic Second City. In this twisted nightmare, an unseen voice taunts the victims/children with trick questions and barbed, anti-Semitic remarks. The spelling bee is supposed to prepare them for the real world–and the kids’ reactions show they’ve learned the lesson all too well.

Political points get scored in an improv section in which the First Family and Al Gore, in bed together but afflicted with insomnia, read the day’s newspapers and react to headlines. Also incisive is a sloppily performed but sharply written sketch in which an IRA prisoner is tortured by the British into proposing constructive solutions to the crisis in Northern Ireland. But this promising sketch gets sidetracked into physical gags when the Brits elaborately rip up his clothes.

Two strong skits offer sharp takes on the absurdities of current psychologizing. In one the Beatles, backstage at their American TV debut, suddenly recover a “repressed memory” of being sexually abused by Ed Sullivan minutes before. (Ringo was molested only by Topo Gigio.) In the other an infuriatingly indifferent therapist remembers nothing about his client except that he should be billed $85 an hour. (Unfortunately, proving the shrink’s forgetfulness requires a lot of repetition.)

Saddest are the sketches that squander their premises. The one about dysfunctional clowns takes a good one off in too many directions. Others go on at length to accomplish the obvious: in “The Ritual” a man gets upset when his fiancee has as much unfaithful fun at her bachelorette party as he did at his last fling–if you’re going to explode the old double standard, find a new explosive. Likewise a swipe at Dr. Kevorkian should do more than show us his death-complying antics (though this sketch did dare to include a debate on euthanasia).

I still haven’t figured out a weird scene in which Christ appears in the crisper of a communal refrigerator, and I can’t fathom why the revue ends with a dippy ballad about how the world would be better if it were a Boston chicken turning on a spit. Well, some things aren’t worth puzzling out–like how in “Soft Serve” Scott Allman disgustingly drools what seems like a river of ice cream.

What is clear is how well the cast click: Steven Carell has a nebbishy persona and stopwatch timing, Allman a class-clown dexterity; Stephen Colbert is effortlessly arrogant, David Razowsky bungling and self-effacing; Fran Adams has a debutantish delicacy, Ruth Rudnick an arch deadpan; and the wonderful Jackie Hoffman is a constant triumph of nerdiness.


at Piper’s Alley

Nate Herman, the director who gave Second City E.T.C. its sharpest shows, has quit the comedy empire–but, thank Thalia (the muse of comedy), he hasn’t stopped concocting satires of contemporary idiocies. Playing Mondays in “Vinnie Black’s Colosseum” (the reception hall for Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding) is his Semi-Dynamics, a wickedly mordant spoof of crackpot get-rich-quick schemes. Like Upright Citizens Brigade’s Conference on the Future of Happiness, this hour-long fake futuristic pep talk takes aim at feel-good success seminars that combine Leo Buscaglia with Dale Carnegie for fun and profit (not necessarily in that order of importance), promising huge fortunes and easy answers.

The occasion is the 13th annual sales meeting of the Squeen Container Corporation. For the third year straight, Norman Schwarzkopf couldn’t make it: the emergency keynote speaker is moral cheerleader Dr. Eddie Vestoon. Fresh from a monthlong tour of Guam, Dr. Eddie bounds onstage to divulge his theory of “self-propulsion”: “Think and grow tired. Relax and grow rich!” As Dr. Eddie says, rationalizing mediocrity, “What’s so bad about coming in second?”

After telling us to write down three things we like about our lives and three things that can ruin us, Dr. Eddie insightfully suggests that we do more of the first three and none of the second. He illustrates his own entrepreneurial success by demonstrating his cat vacuum cleaner on Mr. Whiskers, a stuffed feline. He describes the virtues of compromise and nepotism, and advances the theory that 70 percent of our thoughts escape from our heads like body heat, journeying to other people and helping them get rich. The solution is to put an “idea saver” (a coffee filter) on your head. (Additional items from the Vestoon catalog, we’re told, can be purchased in the lobby.)

Central casting couldn’t have provided a more stereotypical flimflam man than Tim Walkoe: his glad-handed, rosy-cheeked, triple-talking grifter could fleece a halo from a saint. Darryl Warren is his accommodating acolyte, glibly pretending that an audience member has asked the questions he poses to Dr. Eddie, and Bill Pucci is Vestoon’s numb-nuts nephew. Mike Konopka provides the suitably perky music.