at the Civic Studio Theatre

A pit bull terrier that disturbs the peace–no, make that devastates the peace–is the nuisance that sets off a chain reaction of catastrophes in It’s a Dog’s Life, a new and cumulatively hilarious comedy now playing at the Civic Studio. The show is a collaboration of two comedic entities–the troupe Contents Under Pressure and the duo of Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, aka the Steve and Leo Show. The script is by Rudnick, Benvenuti, and Contents member Tom Gianas, who directs the action. Together this gang has produced a show that really knows where the laughs are buried.

As the tale begins, our hero, Stewart Newcomb (Ken Campbell), a decent, nebbishy computer consultant who has just moved into a new home with his very pregnant wife (Kathleen Horrigan), finds himself in conflict with the aforementioned dog: Stewart likes to sleep, the dog likes to bark. Looking for help, Stewart gets a royal runaround from Action Line, the Anti-Cruelty Society, his precinct captain, and the board of health. His boss, Mitch Styles (Rudnick), comforts him with the story of a pit bull that bit through its chain and wiped out an entire Amish community. (Ungrateful mutts: “You raise one for years and then, kaboom, it eats your two-year-old child.”) Finally, when Stewart politely upbraids the dog’s owner about the noise, the sadistic thug threatens to formally introduce the canine’s teeth to Stewart’s throat.

But then Stewart runs into a Mr. Jurgens (Benvenuti) and his dumb-as-rocks son Dave (Rudnick), two Scotch gangsters from remote and unexotic Spiceland (“the land of bad plaid,” where the national pastime is schkert, “not just a card game, it’s a way of life”). The Caledonian morons promise to bump off the pooch if Stewart will use his computer connections with the city to get them a piece of the legalized gambling proposed for Navy Pier.

To complicate the doggone story, the Jurgens gang runs afoul of real estate mogul Luther Offenbach (Bob Hartley), a wheeler-dealer in cahoots with a salivating goon named Joe Carl (Scott Allman)–who just happens to be Stewart’s obnoxious neighbor. All these nasties want information from Stewart, but they have to be careful: after tragic accidents start occurring to people Stewart visits (they drop like flies and every accident’s a four-star howler), the crime cartel convince themselves he’s the most vicious hit man in Chicago.

Unlike Contents Under Pressure’s last effort, It’s Not Easy Being Normal, this screwball story is seldom sidetracked by show-off shtick, and its loudly loony characters actually enjoy a visible means of support–i.e., a plot. But that’s not to say that no scenes are stolen, or that the show is never stopped. Playing Stewart’s boss, a former air traffic controller now suffering from lack-of-stress syndrome, Rudnick puts his exhausted employee through a flight simulation that’s got to be one of the funniest and sickest sight gags ever seen on a Chicago stage. The truly wacko game of schkert between Dave and Stewart is sheer comic inspiration. There’s a strobe-lit travelogue of Spiceland that Saturday Night Live would kill for. And the murder of the pit bull is one of several painfully hilarious sound gags from Allman and Paul Harrold.

Despite a fairly lamebrained first act (the yuks don’t really start piling up until the second) and some clunky blocking on the tiny Civic Studio stage, the comic turns here are some of the wittiest since Friends of the Zoo’s Zoo Plate Special. As the Jurgenses, kingpins of disorganized crime, Benvenuti and Rudnick create a new and deeply weird criminal stereotype; their hideous plaid suits will appear in your dreams. Scott Allman moves easily between an old coot pawnbroker and Joe Carl, the greasy-haired, lowlife pit bull fancier, and Bob Hartley neatly ranges from a stick-in-the-mud store manager to Offenbach, the honcho who wants to turn the 21st century into Century 21. As Stewart’s “what me worry” wife, Kathleen Horrigan brims over with a deadening complacency that isolates Stewart all the more (she’s busy trying to give her fetus a head start by reading Dr. Seuss to it through a stethoscope). Finally, whether reluctant hit man, computer nerd, or just the world’s greatest insomniac, Ken Campbell’s tragicomic Stewart Newcomb waxes winsome in his wall-to-wall suffering and wanes well in everything else–and fully deserves the off-the-wall ending. Campbell is rubber-faced and superb.

Best of all, the pit bull never appears.