The Psychopath Not Taken

Second City

The Revelation Will Not Be Televised

Second City E.T.C.

By Albert Williams

“The point of this work or form is that it allows you and them and me to express what’s going on now [by] directly relating to our preoccupations and our audiences,” says Second City cofounder Bernie Sahlins in Jeffrey Sweet’s oral history of the comedy theater, Something Wonderful Right Away. “As the times change, we change, and that’s why we’ve lasted.” Sahlins–Second City’s sole producer when Sweet interviewed him for his 1978 book–is no longer involved with the company, but his assessment still holds true; indeed, the departure of veterans like Sahlins to make way for new blood over the years bears out the truth of his testimony.

The 120-seat comedy cabaret that opened in December 1959 in a rehabbed Chinese laundry is now big business. Under the leadership of executive producer Andrew Alexander and producer Kelly Leonard, Second City today occupies two theaters in the mall-like entertainment complex Piper’s Alley, two blocks south and a world away from Second City’s original space, now demolished. The company Sahlins founded with Paul Sills and Howard Alk featured a cast of seven; today Second City employs 400 people–actors, techies, business staff, teachers, waitresses, bartenders–at its Chicago home base and in sister companies in Toronto and Detroit, touring troupes, and various TV and film ventures. Plus there are nearly 700 aspiring improvisers enrolled at its training center.

Yet for all its success Second City remains surprisingly, even amazingly noncorporate, its longevity explainable by a down-to-earth connection with audiences. Though its reputation hinges on the many celebrities whose careers it’s launched–audiences love to moon over the lobby photos showing famous alumni (Look how young Alan Arkin was! Look at John Candy’s long hair!)–Second City is about the present, not the past. Sweet in his book rightly speaks of “the communal sharing of experience between a group of peers” as “actors perform stories expressing the concerns of the community,” and that principle guides Second City’s two current shows, The Psychopath Not Taken on the 320-seat main stage and The Revelation Will Not Be Televised in the 180-seat Second City E.T.C. space. Smart, sharp, slick, yet still loose enough to feel spontaneous, these sketch-comedy revues showcase a talented new generation of actor-writers and a pair of skillful directors, Mick Napier and Jeff Richmond, who know that their most important asset is their cast. The two are slated to join forces on the two-part production Second City envisions to celebrate its 40th anniversary next December; meanwhile the current shows, which they’ve individually overseen, offer a portrait of where Second City and its audiences are today.

“Second City Stridently Avoids Clinton Pun in Title of 84th Revue,” proclaims the press release for The Psychopath Not Taken. Indeed, both shows steer resolutely clear of partisan politics–and why not? What comedy group, no matter how talented, could compete with the absurd exercise in long-form improv now playing on Capitol Hill? Yet even without specific political references, both neatly reflect the tensions the Clinton/Congress scandal embodies: the conflicts between high-minded moral posturing and base human urges, between semantic nit-picking and the unfettered lusts for sex and power that language tries and fails to order and control.

Two generations ago Second City offered a wry, hip alternative to sanitized, segregated mainstream America. Today no such dichotomy exists: society isn’t divided between “culture” and “counter,” it’s just a fragmented, image- and information-saturated collage of competing impulses. The Psychopath Not Taken and The Revelation Will Not Be Televised reflect this condition. The characters who move through these shows’ barbed, mordant, often troubling sketches are average folks just trying to negotiate the treacherous terrain of contemporary life and its radically shifting gender, race, and class dynamics.

They’re trying to be good, enlightened members of society–but at heart they’d rather escape it all. The first scene of Psychopath shows a man using his answering machine to hide from callers; another early gag finds a woman telling a friend on the street, “I don’t wanna talk–let’s just wave.” A musical number in Revelation depicts an office worker fed up with stupid supervisors and clueless colleagues; longing for a respite from responsibility, he sings, “I wish I was retarded.” This routine avoids the raucous offensiveness for its own sake that marred some Second City shows in the excess-prone 70s and 80s; rather than merely trashing a helpless minority group, it places mental disability in a universal context of helplessness. And a controversial sketch in Psychopath depicts a paraplegic Superman dreaming of getting well so he can ride horses and rejoin society; reinforcing the production’s pervasive alienation, the episode rises above mere tastelessness.

Inconsistent but often inspired, The Psychopath Not Taken, directed by Napier, is at its best when it blends envelope-pushing outrage with dramatic poignance. One sketch about an eighth-grade girl who flirts with a middle-aged man driving her home from baby-sitting recalls the eccentric, hilarious, yet touching routines of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, especially as played by the understatedly authoritative Kevin Dorff and the intense, perfectly focused Stephnie Weir. Terrified of sex yet desperate for its implied approval, Weir prods Dorff into acknowledging a passing guilty attraction to her; her reactions as he delicately articulates forbidden fantasies pull us into the confusion, excitement, and fear that each of them feels, for different reasons. In another memorable scene, Dorff teams up with TJ Jagodowski, playing a dippy boy who watches a baseball game in the futile hope of bonding with his surly bleacher-bum dad. Weir is also simultaneously compelling and comical as a sardonic psychic giving rude readings to audience members and as a harried housewife serving her brood dinner but never taking time to eat with them–for reasons made all too understandable in her spotlighted confessional monologues.

Overall the cast–rounded out by Susan Messing, Tami Sagher, and Rich Talarico–match their nimble wits with credible physical characterizations. But despite their proficiency and the occasional high points, The Psychopath Not Taken suffers from structural looseness; it doesn’t so much end as run out of steam, as if Napier and the cast had nothing more to say. There’s no such air of doubt in The Revelation Will Not Be Televised, whose bold content is matched by its cohesiveness. Unlike the all-white main-stage company, the excellent multiracial E.T.C. cast opens the door to stingingly satiric racial as well as sexual caricatures as it depicts an America whose efforts to be culturally sensitive, politically correct, and civilized only produce more pointedly perverse expressions of bigotry.

Black actress Angela Shelton plays an elegant but lonely lady whose desperation drives her into the arms of a would-be Superfly, played by Ali Farahnakian; he also portrays a flight attendant who refuses to be called “stewardess” and ends up getting labeled “sky bitch.” Shelton later teams up with Sue Maxman to portray a pair of snotty minimum-wage minority workers at a fast-food joint, delighting in making service as hard to get as possible. As a gay schoolteacher who’s been fired, Martin Garcia strips down to short shorts and prances around in a display of disco decadence. Craig Cackowski plays a Jewish salesman applying for a position with “Stokely & Carmichael,” where he’s verbally assaulted by militant black and feminist interviewers. Having won the job, he splurges on a sleek German-made car–yet another triumph of Aryan engineering, enthuses the auto dealer, who also proclaims that “genocide doesn’t happen by accident, and neither do fine automobiles.” And David Pompeii, after declaring his dignity as a black man, parades around in various states of undress, playing a crackhead street hustler, a spear-wielding African tribesman, and–in the show’s most provocative vignette–a slave on George Washington’s plantation who bends over bare ass to serve as an inkwell when the father of our country uses a quill pen to write a patriotic speech.

Richmond’s technically ambitious, fast-paced production makes innovative use of synthesized music and sound effects, crisply executed by keyboardist Michael Thomas and technical operator Klaus Schuller. The show also takes Second City back to basics with some impressively risky onstage improv, as members of the audience are drawn onstage not merely to give suggestions but to participate in an improvised scene after some quick instruction in the rules of the form.

Rule number one is encapsulated in the phrase “Yes, and”–two simple words that keep actors on track as they build on an imagined world by responding to one another’s ideas. Second City has been saying “yes, and” to our changing culture for years; judging from its current repertory, the troupe is well on track for continued artistic as well as commercial growth.