at Second City E.T.C.


at Stage Left Theatre

Anyone who’s ever wondered what most actors do for a living should check out Kevin L. Burrows’s autobiographical The Pedicab Show. In an hour or so this self-described actor, writer, and mystic not only discusses his lifelong “quest for the perfect odd job” but also reveals something of his personal philosophy, most of it derived from various Taoist writings. Unfortunately, Burrows seems to have taken to heart the Taoist belief that “the way that can be spoken is not the true way”–hardly the best philosophy for a storyteller.

Burrows recounts his life’s journey, from picking corn in his northern Ohio hometown to grooming racehorses in California to studying at Second City and supporting himself by driving a pedicab in Chicago. But we learn precious little about Burrows’s private life–where he’s lived, the people he’s known and loved–and even less about how he feels about the life he’s carved out for himself. He doesn’t even bother to tell us what it’s like to make a living at the bottom of the vehicular food chain. Has Burrows ever had any nasty scrapes with aggressive cabbies? Oblivious bus drivers? Difficult customers? Has anyone ever stiffed him? Held him up? Treated him badly? Burrows doesn’t say.

Instead he fills The Pedicab Show with lots of superficial, albeit entertaining, digressions. Burrows won’t tell us anything about his brother except that he once owned a 1972 purple Gremlin, but he’s willing to stop the show in its tracks to imitate (amazingly well) the badly dubbed kung fu movies he loves. He doesn’t spend a microsecond on his travels with the Second City Touring Company, but he’s willing to spend three minutes or so playing a mean blues harp and singing the praises of coffee, a routine that climaxes with a caffeinated parody of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Mocha which art in Cappuccino, Espresso be thy name. Give us this day Cafe Au Lait.”

These bits are great in themselves. And anyone who’s seen Burrows perform before, as I did five years ago in On the Edge at the now-defunct CrossCurrents, can tell you he’s a talented and funny man. Still, it’s hard not to feel impatient with an autobiographical storyteller who seems determined not to reveal much about himself. It takes Burrows nearly an hour to get around to the central existential dilemma of his life: “I’m 35 years old,” he cries out in a moment of anguish, “and what do I do for a living? I’m a kid on a bicycle!”

In our career-driven society, where status is determined largely by what one does for a living, this is the first thought anyone is likely to have about Burrows–and he almost doesn’t get around to addressing it. If Jim Carrane weren’t already performing a (much better) one-man show at the Annoyance Theatre called I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and I Sell Office Supplies, I’d be tempted to suggest that Burrows bury the central question of his show in a similar title: “I’m 35 Years Old and What Do I Do for a Living? I’m a Kid on a Bicycle.” The question of how one balances making a living with making a life has always been a rich one, and is even more pertinent at a time when a stagnant economy has forced many to settle for much less materially than they’d once hoped for.

Even more damning is what a Peter Pan Burrows seems, fleeing from emotional commitments–at one point he even breaks off a romantic encounter because he can’t figure out where to park his pedicab safely–and refusing either to grow up or fully experience his life. Moreover the chronically unreflective Burrows seems blissfully unaware of this problem. Without a hint of irony he romanticizes his marginal existence, stating that “Pedicab drivers are all dreamers . . . kind of like hoboes and cowboys . . . stubborn and independent,” and yet the life he fleetingly describes seems no freer than any other life.

Is Burrows fooling himself? Or has he truly, like Hermann Hesse’s harried merchant turned ferryman, found happiness in the humblest of jobs? Again, Burrows doesn’t say. He only veils his feelings behind such crypto-mystical expressions as “I’ve merged my soul with the pedicab” and “I was hungry and this pedicab fed me.” In the end, Burrows remains as much a mystery as the half rickshaw, half bicycle with which he shares the stage and his life.

BrewHa-Ha, on the other hand, could do with a bit more mystery. Most of the sketches in its dreary hour-long show would be much funnier if the premises weren’t so damned obvious. As it is, too much of the material in BrewHa-Ha Theatre grows tiresome long before it’s over, especially a bit like “Balletmania.” It answers the unasked question “What if ballet were treated like a contact sport similar to professional wrestling?” in a scene that pits Mikhail Baryshnikov against Alexander Godunov in a grudge match that gets stale in less time than it takes to read this sentence. “Sixty Seconds,” which shows us what the popular CBS newsmagazine might be like if it were a minute long instead of an hour, is effectively over before 20 seconds are up. In fact, of the 16 sketches in the show only 1–Frank Krulac’s comic monologue about modern relationships, “Bitter Frank”–is honestly and flawlessly funny.

Most of the show’s problems can be traced to the writing, much of it wildly inappropriate to BrewHa-Ha’s modest comic talents. Instead of basing its sketches on the talents of its members, BrewHa-Ha has created a series of often highly intellectual Python-esque bits, which depend for their humor upon the supposedly surprising mix of high and gauche cultures–for example, the “DaDa Dinner Theatre Preview” and the Kabuki Three Stooges sketch.

These ambitious routines demand far more of a writer and actor than BrewHa-Ha is prepared to deliver. Some sketches, like “DaDa Dinner Theatre Preview” and “World Cup Poetry,” fall flat because the writers don’t know Dada or modern poetry well enough to lampoon it. Other bits, like “Balletmania” and “Kabuki [Three Stooges],” fail because no one in the troupe really knows how to imitate ballet dancers or Kabuki actors. Still others, like the extended scene poking fun at family Christmas gatherings, flop because the BrewHa-Ha actors don’t yet understand that the surest way to ruin a joke is to telegraph the punch line.

Sure, it’s refreshing to see a comedy troupe try for more than easy parodies of TV and mindless repetitions of the same old improv games. But it would be even nicer if they managed to be funny too. As it is now the BrewHa-Ha gang–which also performs every Tuesday at the coffeehouse Java Jive–seems a good year away from possessing the skill, polish, and self-knowledge essential to successful comedy.