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Sunday Double Header

at Second City, Donny’s Skybox Studio


Stir-Friday Night!

at the Raven Theatre

Turn on Late Night With Conan O’Brien or Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show and you’ll see comic actors trained at Second City or ImprovOlympic or the Annoyance. Many take the tradition-bound Second City approach a step further, the way Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello did in their repulsive but funny Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy. Still, their bizarre characters were only more extreme versions of the eccentrics that have graced the Second City stage since the days of Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin in the early 60s. By the same token, the Upright Citizens Brigade’s hyper-paranoid sketch-comedy TV show was clearly built on the work of such surrealistic Second City icons as Del Close and Severn Darden.

The upside of Second City’s dominance is that year after year Chicago attracts dozens of talented comic actors. Your chances of seeing tomorrow’s Chris Farley or Mike Myers or Rachel Dratch at ImprovOlympic or Second City are pretty good.

The downside is that year after year Chicago attracts hundreds of not very talented comic actors–misfits, neurotics, class clowns, and others who are more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha. When I studied at the Second City Conservatory several years ago, I was stunned at how many people had moved to Chicago to pursue improv and sketch writing. These weren’t just recent college grads but men and women in their later 20s and even 30s. Others flew in for auditions, as if Second City were the Juilliard of comedy–which in a way I suppose it is.

The sad truth is that the mildly talented or flat-out untalented folks are the ones who keep all the training centers in business, paying for an apprenticeship system that gives their more talented fellows a shot at the big time. I know, I know: the improv party line is that anyone can become a Bill Murray or an Amy Poehler. And maybe, with sufficient time and resources and patience, one might be trained to do what comes naturally to talented people.

Of course, it’s not always easy to separate the sheep from the goats in a scene flooded with performers aiming to prove to the world–or at least to their friends and families and themselves–that they actually have what it takes. The two sketch-comedy revues that make up “Sunday Double Header” and Stir-Friday Night!’s disOriented reveal glimmers of talent and flashes of originality, though all three ensembles have to work harder at finding out who they are, what they stand for, and why anyone should care.

The most interesting of the three is Semi-Automatic Sexy, by Dark-Eyed Strangers, the second show on “Sunday Double Header.” Not because the material is particularly strong or well written–mostly the players tackle the same topics as everyone else: cell phones, dating, TV. But the ensemble plays well together, and all six performers are both funny and genuinely likable. Even when their material is merely OK, it’s hard not to root for them. And when they do hit pay dirt–as in the show’s intense opening sketch, about a high school class overseen by a teacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown–it’s hard not to think they’re going to shoot right to the top.

They might. But first Dark-Eyed Strangers are going to have to use their terrific characters more effectively and learn how to conclude a scene–every one here ends with a whimper. Still, the group’s two ballsy women are impressive–utterly fearless onstage. In the opening scene, Meridith Crosley is scarily intense as a goth ex-girlfriend with an eating disorder. And Terri O’Reilly in a later scene plays the sexually aggressive daughter of uptight parents.

The two guys who make up Perfect Gentlemen, Dave Taylor and Jeff Madden, could learn a lot from Crosley and O’Reilly. Holding back in their hour-long show, they reveal only a fraction of what they’ve got emotionally–or they hide behind well-worn sketch-comedy topics. In their most daring piece, a send-up of political correctness, they play defiant, heritage-flaunting minorities because each is 2 percent Native American. But the most daring thing about it–thumbing their noses at the idea that this ethnic group has been mistreated–is pretty ordinary.

However, the duo’s familiar material–used-car dealers, small-town politicians, TV-style cops and robbers–isn’t really the problem. It’s the fact that Taylor and Madden never create believable characters we can care about. Even when they play people faced with high-stakes problems–one is a crazy criminal who puts a gun in the other’s face–they don’t convey a sense of urgency.

The folks in Stir-Friday Night! clearly would like to create a sense of urgency–or at least their director, Brian Posen, would. But apparently they have no clue how. Instead they’ve filled their show with high-energy bits that go nowhere: very short blackout scenes and longer pieces full of frantic running around and quick-hit punch lines.

As in past shows, this Asian-American troupe tries to capitalize on the fact that it represents a whole handful of Asian cultures: Chinese, Indian, Filipino. And like all too many of their previous ventures, this one falls flat, mostly because the ensemble seems terrified of offending anyone. The result is a show about trivialities: a battle for the last doughnut, a parody of the Japanimation series Speed Racer. Stir-Friday’s version of the old “Who’s on first?” routine, adapted for a pair of Indians discussing cricket, has potential–Danny Pudi and Ranjit Souri are two of the show’s three strongest performers (mouthy Sapna Kumar is the third). But the bit goes on way too long: once we understand that the sketch updates an old vaudeville routine, the joke is over.

But then most of the scenes in disOriented overstay their welcome, even the ones that are barely 30 seconds long. Just once I wanted to see the players show a little anger or do something extreme or even discuss something that mattered to them.