Second City Northwest

I’m not sure what the problem is, but I suspect it’s success. Second City is just too big to take risks. It’s a profitable corporation now: there’s the main stage, Second City E.T.C., Second City Northwest, Second City LA, Second City touring companies. They’re a legend.

And with that legendary status comes an enormous reputation to preserve a reputation built on being on the cutting edge. One expects politics. One expects brilliance. One expects next year’s hottest comedians, next year’s Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Belushi.

So a safe, mildly entertaining show with quite good actors, like Second City Northwest’s Rosebud Was the Sled, or Sunday in the Industrial Park With George, is a disappointment.

Rosebud Was the Sled follows the Second City formula, of course. There’s a nice blend of high comedy and touching, semiserious work. There are a few songs, some getting to know the cast, and a couple of running gags. A smidgen of politics is thrown in for old times’ sake. But with one dazzling exception, the show never steps beyond the bounds of comfortable, innocuous comedy.

The exception is a segment called “Spread the Word,” a funny, powerful ten-minute sequence of vignettes about AIDS. The scenes are quick and hard-hitting, and the segment covers the realities, paranoia, and media shows surrounding the disease without getting either maudlin or strident. The material and the blackouts all come at you so fast that you barely have time to react before they’re coming at you from a different angle. The pace is slowed only at the very end of the ten minutes, allowing the audience to reflect on what it’s just been laughing at.

On the night I saw “Spread the Word” the audience had a peculiar reaction to the closing moment. In that moment, each actor comes out with a story of someone they know who’s had AIDS. Only the opening few words of each monologue can be heard before the next person starts, so pretty soon all are talking at once to the audience, a cacophony of voices. But one by one they end their stories: “…and then he/she died.” The audience roared with laughter in the subsequent blackout.

I still can’t figure that one out, but it might have had something to do with the expectations set up by the rest of the show. Perhaps they laughed because they felt they were supposed to, that this was Second City, after all. It was disturbing, though, and perhaps the fact that audiences seem unprepared to deal with difficult material is what has caused that material to all but vanish from the Second City stages.

The rest of the show is fairly mundane, covering such hot topics as pets, suburban couples at loggerheads, and encounters in elevators. Most of the sketches are entertaining if not particularly memorable. Sean Masterson and Tim O’Malley perform “Toys in the Attic,” a poignant piece about two childhood buddies going their separate ways. Masterson plays the 30-year-old would-be rocker who still lives in the attic of his parents’ house, while O’Malley wants to break out of the small-town, loser rut and better himself by taking courses at DeVry. Steven J. Carell performs “Affluent,” a wonderful–albeit safe–poke at the new administration. It’s done to the tune of what our new president made his unofficial campaign song (over the protests of the irate songwriter and Dukakis supporter Bobby McFerrin), “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Masterson and Fran Adams are glamorous and disgusting as a Euro-chic duo attempting an evening of ecstasy in “A Little Night Music.” Carell and John Rubano are brilliant as a dog and a parakeet, respectively, in “Pets.” The two also team up effectively in “Soft,” a piece about two hit men on a camping trip. And the finale of the first act, “Legacy,” is one of the revue’s few forays into politics, a song that points up the nation’s method of dealing with its problems: stick it to the children.

The performers’ talents varied, but all of them are slick, competent comedians. Masterson and Carell are the two most interesting actors. Each has a versatility and command of the situation that make their performances intriguing even in the most mundane sketches. And when they’re allowed to go wild, as in Carell’s dog impersonation or Masterson’s pretentious Euro-jerk, they’re as good as it gets. The two also shine during the so-called improvisational portion of the evening–they’re the only ones with the think-on-your-feet mentality that audiences stay to see.

Rosebud Was the Sled is by no means a bad show. Good actors and fair writing make it a pleasant diversion, a nice place to take your parents and have a few laughs. But with the Second City legacy behind them, and photographs of some of the truly great alumni in the lobby, we hope for something more.