Second City E.T.C.

Until last August, I’d all but written off Second City. Then I caught Warsaw Pact in Its Own Juices at Second City Northwest–and it gave me hope that just maybe Second City might be on the road to recovery. More of the bits were funny than not, and the ensemble actually seemed to enjoy working together. Though the current show at Second City E.T.C. is not quite as successful (despite the presence of two of Second City Northwest’s better performers, Ken Hudson Campbell and David Razowsky), it is nevertheless the best revue I’ve seen at North and Wells in quite a long time.

True, We Made a Mesopotamia, Now You Clean It Up does suffer from many of the flaws that have done in previous shows. It lacks any sort of unifying worldview, for instance–in fact, some sketches come down on both sides of an issue at once. An extended bit about a “save the whales” protester (Megan Moore Burns) at Shedd Aquarium starts out by mocking the protest, then turns on the politically unconcerned tourists who think Burns is part of the Shedd’s show. It ends by attacking an unlikable politically correct graduate student (Razowsky) both because his opinions are laughably inflexible and because he lacks the courage of his convictions.

Other sketches follow Garrison Keillor’s toothless tactic of handling issues so ambiguously that no one could ever be offended. A yuppie (Peter Burns), for instance, blows his big chance with the woman next door (Fran Adams) when he makes a crack about how “Polacky” the neighbors are. Of course he finds out she’s Polish too. Hardly the sort of material to rile Jesse Helms or Jesse Jackson.

Still, I prefer this cowardly comedy to the show’s several forays into crypto-right-wing comedy, such as its several heavy-handed attacks on political correctness. Or its parody of an Andrews Sisters song that suggests, with alarmingly mild sarcasm, that our schools, indeed our whole country, might be better run by the Army: “What the heck, we’ll try a military state.” Today we laugh, tomorrow we run from the tanks.

However, I’m willing to forgive all of Mesopotamia’s minor lapses in light of its two great strengths: the tight, playful ensemble work–not once did anyone in this cast of six talented actors try to steal focus from anyone else–and the performers’ and director Barbara Wallace’s experiments, however tentative, with the Second City format. Several sketches are performed not on the stage but in the aisles or the light booth or at the back of the theater.

On the other hand, a very interesting longish sketch in which Peter Burns plays God as an alcoholic (that’s why the world is the way it is) could easily have been stretched into the sort of one-act scenario in which Burns used to shine when he was with Friends of the Zoo. Sadly, this scene ends much too soon.

In fact, the whole damn thing–which lasts a little more than an hour, not counting the intermission–ends too soon. Somewhere, it seems, they could have found 20 more minutes, if only to make the show competitive with the movies that recently opened across the hall at Loews. On the other hand, after having suffered through so many interminable Second City revues in the 80s, it’s kind of thrilling to actually leave the theater wanting more.

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