Second City

When you write about Second City, it’s easy to sound like a broken record: they’re not what they were; afraid to make the yups choke on their Perrier, they aim at easy targets and convenient stereotypes; they bog down in Saturday Night Live physical humor and sitcom-comfy formulas. In short, they’ve–gasp!–sold out to Schaumburg.

It would be great to finally lift the needle on that record, but with their 73rd revue, Flag Smoking Permitted in Lobby Only, or Censorama, it’s still stuck. Though 8 of the 22 skits do catch fire, overall it’s as if the Second Citizens had decided that anything too specific would just get dated. So, except for that handful of sketches, the humor is generic and unthreatening. If it came with a condom, this revue couldn’t be safer.

The problem begins with a title hinting that Second City has actually returned to trenchant satire and political humor. And yes, there are halfhearted, hit-and-run slams at Texas greed, politicians who profit from confessing their crimes while ignoring the issues, FBI entrapment, the third Chicago airport (here moved to East Saint Louis), and right-wing firemen who’ll rescue a burning flag before a child. There’s also a scat song performed by Mount Rushmore’s four stony presidents, turned cynical and fearful for the republic, that turns out to be a better sight than sound gag.

But the satire is too tentative to hit hard. Indeed, little in this self-censorama will trigger whiplash shocks of recognition. In a year with enough political obscenities to offer abundant chances for swift spoofs, you’ll find nothing about the HUD scandal, attacks on the NEA, McDome, the rape of Comiskey Park, the bureaucracy on Pershing Road, the Hubble telescope fiasco, this state’s imminent return to capital punishment, or a single local election campaign. (Hey, why confuse the tourists?)

Those gaps may be intentional: in the frenzied but efficient opener, “Political Cartoon,” the cast appear as personifications wearing placards–Inflation is on stilts, Justice is blind, Japan wants to buy everyone up, the Germanys are dating again, etc. It’s perfunctory, as if they had decided to get the satire over with fast. Something like passing a kidney stone.

Sometimes a sketch turns more controversial than intended. In the otherwise ho-hum “The Family,” Jill Talley plays a married daughter who suddenly declares, “Having a baby would be a lot easier than working for a living.” The line drew a giant hiss from a woman in the back of the house. Though this is the kind of visceral response Second City should work for, here it seemed to come as a surprise.

Of course the pursuit of comedic inoffensiveness doesn’t mean you can’t entertain; even with the guts gone, you can still have wit, charm, surprise, and sophistication. And a third of this revue does belong in Second City, as much for the cast’s delivery as for the material.

“Crime and Punishment,” building beautifully, ups the ante on Marion Barry’s drug arrest; Talley, playing to the hidden video camera, tells Tim Meadows’s horny mayor that she’ll only get hot if he snorts crack. But the agents want still more evidence. So she gets Meadows to eat crack, then make a crank phone call: “You got pigs’ feet? Where you buy your shoes at?” There’s some shrewd observation here: carry entrapment far enough, and it turns into farce.

Occasionally you get vintage Second City. “Reunion” assembles five ex-kindergartners who quickly revert to their kiddie selves–and we see how much of their futures was decided between naps and recess. Equally deft is “First Date,” a gem about a nervous couple (Holly Wortell and David Pasquesi) who find an ingeniously devised common bond during their date.

A dramatic change of pace is the surprisingly serious second-act opener, “Rooftop.” Escaping to the title setting are five disillusioned strangers driven from their apartments by loneliness, squabbles, or misanthropy. They share their despair in an easy, natural flow of nicely detailed exchanges; the skit is bittersweet, never soft with sentiment.

Equally alive dialogue saves “Living in Limbo,” a vignette about Death’s domestic life. A burned-out Grim Reaper (Pasquesi) comes home from a hard day of discriminate slaughter to be pestered by a would-be suicide (Bob Odenkirk). Confronted with a whining mess who’s seen too much Bergman (he wants to play chess and lose bad), even Death longs for a holiday.

Thanks to some marvelous mugging, “The Abbey,” which assembles four Trappist monks, achieves major laughability: rather than listen to a renegade friar suffering from a sudden sexual awakening, they erupt into escalating fits of bell ringing. And even if he is imitating the loudmouth imbecile Sam Kinison to the decibel, Chris Farley is a stitch in “Motivation.” He plays a scuzzy drug abuser hired by parents to scare their kids straight, a case of negative psychology taken over a cliff.

So much for the good, if not bold, stuff. The weak ones go nowhere. In one weirdly old-fashioned bit, a brother freaks out when he sees that his best friend–a black–likes his sister a lot. This tired situation expired with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Then there are the Skits That Fail to Find a Target, or It Seemed Pretty Damn Funny at the Time. The duet “Farmin’,” sung by two deadpanning hayseeds (Pasquesi and Tim O’Malley), catalogs the drudgery of rural life only too well. In the revue’s finale, “On Leave,” three sailors find out that all their dangerous or romantic adventures on Rush Street have been arranged in advance by the convention bureau. Is this a spoof of On the Town, official civic tours, or the lack of any real adventure in the city?

Much here is tailored to the talent, and that’s fine: often the troupers in Tom Gianas’s staging are sharper than their lines. (Talley and Pasquesi shine in a wryly eloquent episode in which an Italian immigrant and the woman he married in order to enter the country make their charade come true.) But sometimes the material isn’t generous enough for the talent. Odenkirk was top-notch in his one-man comic show Half My Face Is a Clown; he’s less combustible as an ensemble member. Here he has to limit himself, to become a cog in the reliable comic machinery: Odenkirk is forced to play the straight man to Farley’s rubber face and body, O’Malley’s deadpan, Meadows’s hip unflappability, Wortell’s slow burn, Talley’s deceptive niceness, and Pasquesi’s comic versatility.

Pasquesi takes a very creditable stab at improv: he counters audience questions with refreshingly unexpected responses. But on opening night, he didn’t seem to realize that one question thrown from the audience–“Do fish think?”–came from one of Second City’s great moments, Severn Darden’s philosophy lecture, “A Short Talk on the Universe.”

Maybe there’s an argument for Pasquesi to ignore a still-living heritage; after all, he is trying to create one of his own. But, as much like a broken record as this sounds, Second City still has to find a way for its present to stop betraying its past.