Third Rail Comedy Ensemble

at the Roxy

Nothing is more striking about the Third Rail Comedy Ensemble than the fact that they are virtually indistinguishable from the dozens of other graceless Second City wannabes performing weekly throughout Chicago and environs. Thanks to the efforts of three improv factories–Players Workshop, Second City Training Center, and ImprovOlympic–Chicago now has many more improvisational actors and more improv groups than it will ever need.

Like everyone else, the Third Rail ensemble uses Viola Spolin’s improvisational theater games to create generally not very funny material. Like everyone else, they slap a sordid assortment of sketches and planned games together to make a revue of dubious quality. And, like so many other groups, they seem stuck at the awkward point between advanced beginners and semiprofessionals. Their show lacks both the exuberance of an amateur revue and the polished discipline of a professional one.

To make matters worse, Third Rail rarely wanders far from the closed set of topics most improv groups explore–roommate relationships, TV parodies, superficial reactions to current events. What makes this sameness all the more frustrating is the fact that the ensemble didn’t have to be just another Second City clone. As graduates of the ImprovOlympic and students of Del Close, they should know better. After all, they’ve learned the “Harold,” Close’s technique of creating long improvisations based on a single topic. There is nothing as playful and freeing in the world of improv as a good Harold. Unfortunately, they seem determined to turn their backs on the Harold and to use improvisation the way it’s used at Players Workshop and Second City–as a way of creating material during rehearsals. You would never know from the few moments of pure improvisation that appear in this show that improv has any use besides killing time between bits. The failure of these scenes is even worse when you realize that the show’s director, Noah Gregoropoulos, also teaches improvisation at the ImprovOlympic. Teacher, teach thyself.

The evening began with a tedious little time eater about a couple of sports announcers who have all but run out of trivia to talk about during a rain delay. The fact that the two actors in the piece–Pete Gardner and James Grace–play off each other well didn’t keep their sketch from quickly running out of gas, leaving them as stranded as the announcers they were playing. Gardner and Grace also waste their natural rapport in an improvised scene that explores roommate relationships. Their major conflict? One of them is real messy and the other is real neat. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were squeezing the last laughs out of this ritual 15 years ago.

One of the more interesting scenes of the evening involves an interview with a couple of actors who claim to be members of the Elvis family. “We’re the Elvis family,” the Elvis father (Jim Carrane) explains. “If Elvis was a family he’d look like us.” The interviewer is baffled: “I don’t see the connection.” The father replies with a kind of Bob and Ray earnestness, “We’re the Elvis family.” As if that explained everything.

Another similarly absurd scene involves an awards ceremony for inanimate objects. The sketch begins with a funny but very cruel imitation of the Andy Griffith Show’s Floyd the barber (after his stroke) as the evening’s presenter: “He, uh . . . he, uh . . . he, uh, he . . . did a lot of film . . . a lot of film.” It ends with a touch of Pythonesque humor when one of Second City’s cane-backed chairs wins an award for best prop and delivers a short speech thanking everyone who made its career possible.

The best sketch of the evening was an odd but cute and mildly humorous bit in which the whole cast put on rat noses and ears, and sang and danced their way through the “Rat People Anthem”: “We’re not men / We’re not mice / We’re rats, man.” Maybe not the most profound lyrics in the world, but it was refreshing to see the actors actually enjoying themselves. Unfortunately, this moment of spontaneity only made the numbing sameness of the rest of the show even more deadening.