Second City Northwest

It’s not exactly news when a Second City troupe tries to be funny and fails–an inevitable hazard when a comedy institution attempts to cater to a ton of different tastes (and, it seems, has given up on satire). But it’s big news when a Second City company chooses not to be funny in order to offer something moving and true. Laughs are just one way–usually the most obvious–to measure what such a troupe gives.

In Casino Evil, Second City Northwest’s tenth revue, you’ll find the usual pell-mell blackout sight gags (a few of them studiously sophomoric) and novelty items (the hilarious duet performed by disgruntled clowns sucking on helium tanks). But in Norm Holly’s staging the sharpest sketches explore the tension that fuels a strong comic premise.

Take the wonderful “Pencil”: an office worker confronts a colleague who has innocently asked to borrow his pencil. As this guy sees it, it’s clearly a request to touch his penis–his friend must be gay. This sudden bout of homosexual panic could easily have triggered the usual knee-jerk macho reactions. Instead the lonely bachelor-inquisitor (played by Scott Adsit with a precise abandon) slowly launches a monologue: it turns out he longs for the risks and rewards he imagines come with being gay (a parade of his own, all those beautiful girls flocking around equally beautiful–and presumably unthreatening–gay men). Whenever this confession gets intense, a third clerk ambles in just in time to overhear–naturally, out of context–some compromising revelation. (At the end he pops a surprise of his own.)

This is Second City at its deftest, keeping audience and jokes alike off-kilter but on-target, going two steps beyond where a timid troupe might venture and three steps beyond where the audience expects. Classic comedy, it goes deeper than you’d imagine and still ends with a big, clean laugh.

The offbeat “Values” is as incisive as “Pencil”: a father (John Hildreth) and his hyperactive little daughter (precociously peppy Aliza Murrieta) ponder why Mommy left them to become a senator in Washington. “I see,” simpers the tyke. “Mommy’s like the government–she’s never there when you need her.” If you can set aside the latent misogyny of the sketch, you can appreciate how it uses the mouth of a babe to skewer a host of grown-up presumptions about national and familial responsibility. (Even so, this bit does meander.)

The troupe’s women have several moments of truth in the class-conscious “Baby.” Murrieta and Nia Vardalos play an anal-retentive lawyer and a blue-collar earth mother who’s with child; together they thrash out the options life handed them and manage to avoid more cliches than they deliver.

Even when a sketch doesn’t surprise it can stir a pot to boil. Though “2 Percent Solution” (the title refers to the proportion of the populace who don’t cheat on their partners) badly needs an ending, the sketch surges like a nightmare. A guy tries to break up with his girl after she invests all she owns in a condo for them, a farewell that’s complicated by the arrivals of a distraught arsonist neighbor, the boyfriend’s new mistress, the buddy who wants to help him move, and a drunken, suicidal pal wielding a pistol. Until it fizzles, it crackles.

The vintage Second City silliness includes a crackbrained male hymn to the pleasures of showers (complete with towel-snapping choreography and a klutzy allusion to Busby Berkeley), a rather mean-spirited send-up of office temps, and a crude opening (and closing) tribute to devolution: “Somebody fucked a monkey and we’re all here,” so “Scratch that primal itch!” Other jokes involve Jesus’ answering machine, a chump who puts more than a dog out of its misery, a son whose ownership of a pair of panties means both less and more than it seems, and a slow-motion brawl on a crowded train.

If anything in Casino Evil has the chance of becoming a Second City classic, it’s the richly detailed “King Kong.” Jim Zulevic plays Sister Mary Martin Balsam, a nun from hell who forces left-handed children to write on the board with their right hands, then punishes them for the illegible results by forcing the kids to lick off what they wrote. Demoted to coaching a rugby team in Ecuador, the twisted sister dresses down the school’s principal-priest; in the ensuing fracas an American flag and the cross itself become mortal weapons.

The uniformly strong ensemble artfully meld Hildreth’s zany unflappability (already seen in various Cardiff Giant shows), Zulevic’s mania peddling, Vardalos’s spunk, Adsit’s contagious quirkiness, and Murrieta’s lightning improv (displayed in one highly variable audience-suggestion sketch). The night I went Matt Dwyer, a fairly flexible understudy, replaced Aaron Rhodes; Rhodes, I’m told, is the prime creator of the superb “Pencil”–for which he deserves a trunkful of kudos.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.