Court Theatre

When I was a kid, there was something almost mythical about Second City. My mom would listen to The Midnight Special on WFMT and we’d laugh at Alan Arkin wailing “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright” as a folk song or Severn Darden expounding upon the life of Oedipus Rex. You’d hear stories about all the people who graduated from Second City, moving on to bigger and better things. You’d watch talk shows and everyone seemed to be thanking Second City for teaching them everything they needed to know about comedy. You’d meet people who had moved to Chicago just so they could take lessons at Second City’s training center.

But when we finally got to see Second City, we were disappointed. Maybe it could never have met our expectations. It was always hit or miss, a hilarious sketch followed by a clunker, an inspired improv followed by a predictable groan. By the time we got there Second Cities were sprouting up all over and seriously diluting the talent pool. We would leave the theater fantasizing about what it must have been like to see the original company members performing their revolutionary sketches, imagining that we had just seen the efforts of a young Mike Nichols or Elaine May. We’d sadly acknowledge that Second City wasn’t what it used to be, and quietly wonder if it ever had been.

From the Second City, the Second City’s greatest-hits show currently on display at Court Theatre, attempts to re-create the magic using an alumni company to perform a selection of goodies from the archives. Director Bernard Sahlins, Second City cofounder, has chosen a seven-member troupe and a representative sampling of works from the company’s illustrious 30-year history.

On display are the intellectual high jinks of University of Chicago students taking a scientific approach to football, a rambling James Joyce spoiling his own birthday party, a primer on how to fake an orgasm, a Greek chorus inspired by David Mamet, a CTA bus driver who shoots those who mispronounce the names of Chicago streets and landmarks. And then there are the songs–a Broadway patter-style lesson on macroeconomics and a relatively recent number about the growing conservatism of the Supreme Court.

The show is a slick, professional package ably directed by Sahlins and performed by Peter Burns, Kevin Crowley, Bruce Jarchow, Karol Kent, David Pasquesi, Mitch Rouse, and Amy Sedaris. But there’s something stale and creaky about the whole endeavor. After a while this show is like a rock concert performed by a professional cover band: all the notes are there but the spark is missing.

From the Second City works just fine as a museum piece. It gives a good overview of what’s been going on upstairs on Wells Street. It’s kind of fun figuring out what sketch comes from what period and who originally performed what. But to anyone not well educated in Second City lore, the show will probably come off as pretty dull and white bread.

The satire that may at one time have seemed revolutionary now seems obvious and simpleminded–it’s like shooting political and social icons in a barrel. “Football Comes to the University of Chicago” may have been hilarious 30 years ago, but today it seems hollow and self-congratulatory, drawing a specious distinction between U. of C. students and all other students. The names of Joyce and Kierkegaard are dropped seemingly for effect rather than meaning.

The ambience of Court Theatre only adds to the sterility. The advantage of the Wells Street space is that the show’s quality increases in direct proportion to the number of drinks served. The classical theater setting here makes the show seem even more staid. The audience laughs in all the right places, but the laughs seem empty. You’re left at the close of the show wondering if two hours of mildly amusing sketches are all that remains of the magnificent Second City.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/R.E. Potter.