Second City Northwest

The city is raw, gritty, diverse, and unpredictable.

The suburbs are manicured, scrubbed, homogeneous, and a trifle boring.

So the suburban branch of any Chicago enterprise is bound to look a bit incongruous. I mean, if you remember State Street when it was the place to shop, will you ever really get used to seeing Marshall Field’s in an enclosed shopping mail that pipes Muzak into every corner? And can you imagine Gino’s Pizzeria in a suburban shopping center with a Wild West motif? (There’s a Gino’s East that fits the description.)

The Second City, as distinctly “Chicago” as the blues and bad baseball, has planted a branch in the Land Beyond O’Hare, and sure enough it looks incongruous. While the Chicago Second City is located on Wells Street in Old Town–an address that suggests nightlife and good times–Second City Northwest is located in the Continental Towers on Golf Road in Rolling Meadows–names that suggest high finance, bourgeois recreation, and pastoral bliss. Inside Continental Towers, the cabaret is located down the hall from a swanky steak house and upstairs from a ritzy health club. Everything is shiny, clean, and new.

Inside the cabaret, however, the stage is identical to its Wells Street counterpart–the back wall has one door with hinges, one revolving door, and a window with shutters in between. The audience area is similar too–black walls, dim lighting, cramped tables. The ambience is supposed to evoke the feel of the original cabaret, but the gesture seems as pointless as spraying gang insignia on your suburban garages just to remind you of the old neighborhood.

After performing “best of Second City” material for the past few months, the Northwest ensemble has finally opened its first original show, titled Pieces of Eighty Eight, or Life in the Exact Change Lane. As expected, the revue is similar to the shows performed on the main stage in Old Town, with one conspicuous difference–most of the skits seem to be unfinished. While some come to a satisfying conclusion, the ensemble members seem to practice a form of improv interruptus–after establishing an interesting premise and creating provocative characters, they stop short of anything that might get them into trouble. Consequently, the skits remain clean and safe–like the suburbs.

For example in “Rush Street,” the most complex skit in the revue, the ensemble members portray the denizens of a flashy disco bar. The characters come together in various combinations, with attention shifting from one encounter to another. A woman on the dance floor with an awkward young man drops him and goes to the bar, where she rebuffs the come-on “Hello little lady” with a withering “Hello little man.” A sexy egotist (“Don’t block the mirror, babe”) makes fun of a nerd from Cleveland (“I’ll bet your name is Mel”). All this time, a visibly deranged young woman sits in the corner, making incoherent small talk with anyone who takes notice of her.

But that’s about all that happens. Instead of drawing humor out of the personalities they have created, the ensemble members merely use them to deliver one-liners.

The same is true of “Rest Home,” in which an elderly couple receive separate visits from their son and daughter. The setup is clear–the children are uncomfortable with their parents, who seem to be dull, withdrawn, and judgmental. But nothing comes out of this premise. The attempts to elaborate on the tensions among the characters fall flat, and the laugh lines are generally feeble. (“A little ripe, isn’t it?” says an aide as he breezes through, noticing the couple sitting near the Dumpster.)

There are hits among the misses. David Pasquesi’s solo juggling routine at the end of the first act is by far the best bit in the show. It’s so bizarre and, well . . . sick, that it injects some desperately needed audacity into the proceedings. “Mad Agency” is about an unctuous young copywriter (Pasquesi again) who steals the credit for good ideas and slanders his coworkers. The premise is interesting, but the skit seems to serve primarily as a setup for a song. “Bum,” in which an uptight executive ends up inviting a panhandler out for drinks, is totally implausible, but sweet nevertheless.

The ensemble members are good performers who apparently have been sent to the suburbs to acquire more experience. Pasquesi, with his devilish grin and quick wit, is ready for the main stage. His eye for character detail is excellent, and he seems to be the sharpest improviser in the bunch. Tim O’Malley, a smooth, polished performer, also seems able to hold his own in any sketch.

Mark Beltzman doesn’t have to do anything–he can always get by on his spooky physical resemblance to the late John Belushi. Fran Adams excels at portraying brash, ballsy women. Ruth Rudnick is wonderfully droll in the skit “Anyway,” in which she plays a talk-show guest who uses flattery and flirtation to subvert the host’s outrageous male chauvinism. I can’t tell you much about Bill Cusack, since he swallowed most of his lines.

The suburbs are fertile territory for franchise operations, which produce bland, uniform copies of any product they touch. Second City Northwest certainly wasn’t created as a franchise outlet, but without a little more spice in the show, it might start to look like one.