Second City Northwest


Second City

For some years now Second City’s time-tested formulas for homogenized, pasteurized, utterly inoffensive satirical revues have been the very model of theater that’s outlived its era. True, the shows still pack ’em in on weekends and sell out weeks in advance. They’re not bad, but they’re a far cry from the intelligent, articulate shows of even 12 years ago. Meanwhile, Cardiff Giant and Metraform have been using improv games to create funny and original theater that would never in a million years be confused with a Second City revue.

There have been signs of renewal at Second City recently, however, even signs of artistic growth–or at least, as indicated by Second City E.T.C.’s not entirely successful last show, We Made a Mesopotamia, Now You Clean It Up, the desire for artistic growth. But the real artistic growth is taking place a couple of suburbs to the northwest of North and Wells, at Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows.

Second City Northwest’s last show, Welcome to the Barn Raising, was surprisingly original and funny. It managed both to avoid the number-one killer of Second City shows–sketches reminiscent of earlier, better-done Second City bits–and to forge an original, contemporary comic style. This style at once acknowledges the debt to Second City’s 32-year history while mocking–sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently–its traditions. It was best exemplified by Jackie Hoffman’s reflexive intro: she explained how to put together a musical introduction while behind her the rest of the cast performed one.

Ku Klux Klambake, Second City Northwest’s current revue, contains a similarly self-conscious sketch, ironically entitled “Intro” though it’s the evening’s second sketch. Paul Dinello, reading from note cards, recounts in a stumbling, stilted manner the history of Second City, emphasizing the importance of improvisation and–he pauses to turn a card–spontaneity. As an example Dinello “improvises” a story, pausing every once in a while so that the audience can supply the missing words. But in Dinello’s version, if the audience blurts out a word he’s not expecting he shames them–“No, no,” he says–and then tries to get them to guess the right one. It’s at once absolutely hilarious and a dead-on lampoon of Second City’s cherished rituals.

Ku Klux Klambake, like Welcome to the Barn Raising, has been directed by Metraform founder and director Mick Napier, which accounts for the broad streak of refreshingly dark comedy. In a sketch making fun of the men’s movement, four suburban husbands get in touch with the hunter inside them by skewering a house cat. In another sketch, a man commits suicide seconds before his friends burst in to wish him a happy birthday.

Of course, Ku Klux Klambake would never be confused with an Annoyance Theatre show. For one thing, it scrupulously follows Second City’s time-honored short-sketch format–and some of the show’s longer scenes are played with such commitment and attention to character development that they could easily have been twice as long. For another, Ku Klux Klambake follows Second City’s tradition of giving women the smaller roles. This cast includes two talented women, Hoffman and Nia Vardalos, both of whom had more to do in Welcome to the Barn Raising, despite–or maybe because of–the fact that Amy Sedaris (who is sorely missed) was also in the company. It’s hard not to wonder whether the loss of musical director Faith Soloway, currently in New York with her brainchild The Real Live Brady Bunch, doesn’t also have something to do with Hoffman and Vardalos’s diminished roles.

Still, Ku Klux Klambake is a stronger show than we’ve seen at North and Wells in quite some time. Within the limitations of the form Napier et al accomplish what other groups only dream of. The second half in particular contains some political satire so vicious–jabs at David Duke (“The white man for the job”) and Bush’s craven attempts to declare the recession over–you would think it had been created in the early 60s. The show even ends with a song worthy of Tom Lehrer.

Would that Second City’s revue were as good. This is not to say it’s bad. Economy of Errors, the first show Sheldon Patinkin has directed there since 1968, avoids many of the failings of recent main-stage efforts. Most of the comedy works, and Economy of Errors has none of the sexist, conservative humor that’s becoming the hallmark of Saturday Night Live. In fact there’s a certain 60s-ish humanism and generosity of spirit behind the comedy that’s been sorely missed at Second City. Instead of mocking the powerless and the odd, as recent revues have done, Economy of Errors lovingly portrays eccentrics–warts, plastic slipcovers, and all–while blasting institutions like the Boy Scouts for intolerance.

Nevertheless, this highly polished and professional production seems to be missing something essential. I wouldn’t call the show predictable, but it offers few real surprises, and even fewer truly memorable moments.

Part of the problem is two very long but not very humorous sketches, one about a woman introducing her normal, well-mannered boyfriend to her gauche lower-middle-class Italian family, the other about an incredibly annoying quartet of kvetchers. An even greater problem is that, with the exception of Ron West, the show’s unacknowledged star, no one in the cast seems capable of creating an original, memorable comic character. Everyone seems content to perform the first stereotype that comes into his or her head. Jill Talley’s cheerleader never departs from the thousands of cheerleader imitations that have been performed before. It’s as if the cast have forgotten what the world looks like outside of Piper’s Alley, and can only lift characters from other comedy sketches.

The show does contain some moments of terrific satire, including a wonderful bit about the impossibility of unbiased job interviews that involves a blindfolded personnel director and an interviewee who disguises his voice. But for every moment of sharp satire there’s another, less successful moment in which easy targets are merely grazed or missed altogether. Early in the show the company performs a satirical song with a line–“We’re the last super power and we’re going to kick your ass”–that even the bland and obvious neo-conservative musical group Capitol Steps would never have touched. Economy of Errors even repeats a joke about Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas, commenting on the fact that he’s liberal, Greek, and from Massachusetts, that was old last summer.

All in all, however, Economy of Errors is one of the best revues I’ve seen at Second City in a while. Though I didn’t leave the show with the endorphine intoxication I felt after Ku Klux Klambake, I also didn’t leave with the numb disappointment I’ve come to expect from Second City.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.