Slaughterhouse 5-Cattle 0, Second City. The sketch-comedy form is universally recognizable thanks to Saturday Night Live and other Second City offshoots. And improv training and performance, once trade secrets, are now also well-known. This familiarity plus the weight of reputation and history make an excellent recipe for unfunny comedy. But with Slaughterhouse 5-Cattle 0, Second City again dodges the bullet.

While there is some predictably topical just-add-water shtick–Ameritech customer service, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, election-year humor–it’s given a dreamy treatment by director Jeff Richmond, whose markedly apolitical show is much less about current affairs than his last couple E.T.C. efforts. Most of the sketches are minimalist and gently surreal: pirates, ninjas, talking bears, and Maya Angelou erupt into absurd but plausible setups, and characters recur and scenes tie together with a pointed illogic that enhances the fantastic air. Though Tami Sagher and Ed Furman are especially crisp, the remarkably well-balanced, accomplished ensemble is uniformly canny and versatile, giving all the characterizations a deft anonymity.

This willfully themeless stuff illuminates the loopy associative basis for improv but never delivers anything too clever or incisive even though the performers are frequently hilarious. Ultimately this is a cheerful conceptual piece, not a yukfest–which may be the best route for the company in the wake of its 40th birthday. Actors playing–certainly when they’re as good as these–are generally more entertaining than actors trying to make you laugh.

–Brian Nemtusak