Second City E.T.C.


New World Repertory Company

Last summer Back Stage ran an article showing out-of-work actors and would-be monologuists how to write, produce, and market their own one-person shows. The message was that in these tough economic times, when even single-set, small-cast shows are proving too expensive to produce, someone with a one-person show can always find a gig. And might even become the next Lily Tomlin, Spalding Gray, or John Leguizamo.

Clearly inspired by what one of his characters refers to as “this rising epidemic of [one-person] shows,” Kevin Crowley has created Earth on a Platter, a wickedly funny satire based on the rather sensible premise that a good one-man show is hard to find. Crowley, who wrote the show and codirected with Anne Libera, plays a down-on-his-luck Chicago actor named Kyle, who was recently deserted by a girlfriend whose own acting career has taken off in Hollywood, and who has decided to put together his very own one-person show.

The show is a compendium of one-man-show mistakes. Kyle begins by revealing his narcissism: “Good evening and welcome to my show. Before we begin, I thought I’d let you get to know me.” A moment of naive grandiosity follows, as he claims he’ll play so many different characters his show will approach universality. “Can an individual represent a whole planet?” he asks himself, and then answers with good-natured gullibility, “You betcha.”

What follows could pass for one of the better bits from some third-rate Second City wannabe. At one point Crowley, pretending to be a homeless man, even sings a lame parody of “New York, New York”: “Start spreading the cash / I’m really, really poor / You’re going to see a lot of us / In old New York.”

Keeping Crowley from slipping into the bathosphere along with his characters are numerous antagonists, parents, business associates, utter strangers–all ably played by some of the strongest comic actors in the city–who enter the show unannounced and rain on Crowley’s parade. When Crowley does an awful imitation of his father reading the paper, his own father, played by Ron West, growls “Aw, Christ!” and stomps out of the theater dragging Crowley’s mother behind. And while Crowley does a piss-poor impersonation of a homeless man, David Pasquesi plays a real homeless man trying to sneak into the show. This so annoys Crowley that he finally snaps “This show is not about compassion, it’s about me.”

Earth on a Platter could have ended there and satisfied me, but Crowley–a seasoned, subtle, sophisticated comic actor with experience on Second City’s main stage and in productions such as Northlight’s The Rhino’s Policeman–is clearly after more than a few quick laughs.

Soon after the encounter with Pasquesi’s homeless man, Crowley’s show takes a truly bizarre, absolutely inspired turn and smashes right into Pirandelloland. Every time Crowley attempts to do a bit (imitate his agent, illustrate his day job as a cab driver, give God a call on the telephone) the scene is ruined by the entrance of someone (his agent, a fare who needs to get to O’Hare in a hurry, God) who absolutely won’t believe he’s in the middle of a show.

“I know it might appear that I’ve lost complete control of this program,” Crowley says at one point. And he’s right. His agent even says the folks on the coast aren’t sure Crowley’s “the right man” to play himself in his one-man show, though “they are willing to let you audition.”

In this way Crowley turns what in other hands would have been mere parody into a multilayered absurdist, self-reflexive comedy that’s far funnier and more sophisticated than any one-person show could ever be.

To really appreciate Crowley’s accomplishment I had to see Earth on a Platter’s evil twin, the exceptionally lame Another One Man Show: The Steve and Leo Story, written by Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, who used to do comedy around town as Steve and Leo and even appeared in a few locally produced TV commercials before they headed for the coast.

Only an hour long and filled with bad shtick and jokes too tired even for a house full of friends of the cast, Another One Man Show tells the story of Steve and Leo’s great invention–a device that can make a mass audience love mediocrity.

Not a bad premise. Unfortunately, Rudnick and Benvenuti lack the satirist’s killer instinct. Instead of turning their story into a critique of the mass media and the myriad ways TV promotes mediocrity, they take the easy way out and make fun of all the usual suspects: Bob Hope wannabes, bad performance artists, and Jerry Lewis fans. The real promoters of bad art–the networks, ad agencies, lazy comedy teams–still roam the streets.

It doesn’t help that director Richard Kirk’s production rarely rises above the level of mediocre community theater. Of the six members in this cast, only Angela Stanford (Steve) succeeds in creating a believable character. Jim Blanchette (Leo) comes close, but he constantly undermines his work, just as he did earlier this year in Trask & Fenn, by hamming it up, telegraphing punch lines, and when all else fails, showing his superiority to the material with sly winks at the audience.

The rest of the cast either just go through the motions (Robert Goliath Taich’s sleep-inducing “Krazo, the World’s Kraziest Prop Komick”) or act so hard you worry they’re going to strain something. This is especially true of Melissa Landis, whose overacting drains all the potential comedy from her performance-artist character.

But even if the cast were as great as Kevin Crowley’s, the glib, mindless material still wouldn’t seem very funny.