Second City Northwest

Until I saw Second City Northwest’s current production, Welcome to the Barn Raising, I didn’t believe it was possible for someone enmeshed in the Second City organization to craft a witty, playful, and intelligent show that would be funny from start to finish. For the first time in a very long time–probably since George Wendt last graced the main stage–I found myself wishing the show wouldn’t pass so quickly. And not because Welcome to the Barn Raising is skimpy–unlike the annoyingly short We Made a Mesopotamia, Now You Clean It Up, it runs a full, satisfying 90 minutes–but because there are so many wonderful bits going on it’s impossible to catch them all. Some highlights are the sketch in which a family is reduced to hysterics because no one can find the television’s remote control. Or the song about phone sex. Or the extended scene in which a father tells his son about the practical jokes his father would play on him.

Yet what makes this show amazing is not that director Mick Napier and his cast of six have been able to create funny sketches about a bride being fitted for a dress, or a father talking to his son, or a crowd of people getting trapped in an elevator–every improv group in the city must have explored these topics. Rather it’s the way the cast is able to create comedy that has as much in common with the postmodern self-conscious humor of Napier’s Metraform shows (Coed Prison Sluts and That Darned Antichrist) as it has with Second City’s straight-ahead satire.

In fact, the opener to Welcome to the Barn Raising, in which Jackie Hoffman self-consciously lectures the audience on the various ways a Second City show might begin, is funny for the same reasons the opening song of Coed Prison Sluts (which begins, “Hey, we’re in prison”) is funny. Both perform the difficult trick of pulling the audience into the show even as they remind the audience that they’re devices created to pull the audience into the show.

This kind of comment on what is happening as it’s happening occurs throughout Welcome to the Barn Raising, adding an additional level of irony to nearly every sketch in the show. For example, a skit in which six stock characters–among them a nun, a pervert, a handyman, and a pregnant woman about to give birth–are trapped in an elevator explores the well-worn topic of how people might act if they were trapped in an elevator while playfully commenting on what it’s like to pretend to be people trapped in an elevator and what it’s like to be doing a comedy sketch so many people have done before.

Likewise a scene in which two women–Hoffman and Amy Sedaris–play a father and son on a fishing trip derives much of its humor from the fact that Sedaris and Hoffman subvert the all-too-common Second City ploy of trying for laughs of recognition by having a father and son engage in a funny but “poignant” discussion about women. Yet Sedaris and Hoffman win as many laughs for the canny way they imitate men imitating men talking about women as they do for their gag-filled discussion.

In a sense, Welcome to the Barn Raising is as much a show about Second City as it is about the world outside the cabaret’s walls. It may be read, as my deconstructionist friends said, as a Second City revue that parodies Second City revues. That someone would parody them would hardly surprise anyone who has seen how unconsciously rarefied and self-referential Second City has become over the past ten years. What is surprising is that Napier et al have found in Second City’s insularity a rich source of material merely by admitting to themselves and their audience both how little their work refers to the real world and how much their skits owe to all previous skits.

In less able hands such material could easily become self-indulgent, but Napier’s cast approach their work with a commitment often missing in Second City shows. It helps that they all seem comfortable with their roles and that no one seems determined to be the big star of the evening–which may have something to do with the distance (physical and psychological) between Second City Northwest and the hotdogging big time of Second City’s main stage, where at any moment an actor can be spirited away to one of the coasts and a big TV contract. But I’m also willing to bet that Napier and his Annoyance Theatre cohort Faith Soloway (the show’s musical director) have just as much to do with this show’s success. I doubt that this cast would seem quite as terrific in different hands.

Certainly no other Second City director since Del Close has been as willing as Napier to test the limits of what’s permissible on Second City’s stage. But then what do you expect from a man who admits in his program bio that conventional theater bored him to tears? If the powers that be at Second City were smart, they would teach their staff and students to be similarly bored to tears by the usual, the shopworn, the vaguely reminiscent. Then we might never see another tedious Second City revue again.