The title of the new Second City E.T.C. revue, We’re All in This Room Together, alludes to the theater lover’s mystic faith that something sacred happens when one set of human beings performs for another set of same in a common space in real time. It’s a sweet notion—especially now, when a “crowd” is defined as multiple mobile devices ranged in close proximity to one another. It can even be seen as a manifesto of sorts, calling for a world without tweet seats.
But it also comes across as, oh, just a little disingenuous as the show gets under way. A smarmy opening song declares that “some things don’t change”: when you come down to it, we’re told, a Second City revue still consists of six performers, four chairs, and an audience that’s close enough to touch—the cast members proving that by trooping down to the lip of the stage and shaking hands with people in the front row. You might be forgiven for looking around and thinking, Well, yes and no, as musical director Jesse Case pulls bizarre sounds out of his digital equipment. After all, when you really, really come down to it, a Second City revue consists of six performers who won’t have arrived until they’ve been picked up by SNL.
Turns out, though, that this particular half dozen aren’t kidding. Not about all of us being in the room together, anyway. Directed by Ryan Bernier, their very fine, very funny revue engages its audience in ways that go well beyond the usual name-a-location-and-a-type-of-sex-toy improv prompts.
The two most recent Second City main-stage shows have pushed the engagement envelope, too, by opening up new opportunities for extended interaction. But in each of those cases the tone of the interactions was fairly caustic, with audience members being treated as props or targets rather than as participants. Here, the mood is much more generous—which, interestingly enough, leads to much more daring. A sketch in point starts with beanpole Mike Kosinski as a gay son talking with his supersupportive parents. No sooner does he announce that he’s getting married than he drags a random male out of the audience to play his fiance. On opening night, Kosinski was lucky enough to pick a guy—a postal worker named Michael, so he said—who exhibited enormous poise, presence of mind, and the good sense not to attempt to out-funny the pros around him. In maybe ten minutes with him, the cast never played down to Michael or made him their football. Instead, they backed him up and guided him through to the absurd finish, featuring a wedding officiated over by Tawny Newsome’s uncanny version of pop star Prince. The result was a scene that wasn’t just entertaining but bold and, truth be told, kind of ennobling.
In another bit, Andel Sudik and Aidy Bryant play old ladies at a movies-in-the-park event who’d much rather kibbitz with the people around them (i.e., us) than watch what’s on the screen. Their goofy warmth makes for, yes, an engaging series of exchanges.
Of course, the ensemble do pretty well even without our active help. An encounter at a bar turns into a revved-up version of a medieval morality play when a man and woman get literally taken over by the drinks they’ve been throwing back. A guy with severe anxiety is brought to the edge on a trip to Whole Foods, when a vegan cashier won’t check him through because she can hear the meat he bought screaming. Visits to the Obama and Romney Facebook pages yield some scary postings. And in an out-and-out hilarious sequence, we’re introduced to country singer Dolly May Daniels and her all-ex-husband band—including ex number four, Arsenio Hall (“no relation”), at whom Bryant’s Dolly unleashes a string of fuck-yous so torrential that it amounts to a rhetorical masterpiece.
Dolly’s outburst is one of many have-to-be-there touches in We’re All in This Room Together. Appropriately, the show is chock-full of idiosyncratic textures. After hardly registering at all in the 2011 E.T.C. show Sky’s the Limit (Weather Permitting), Bryant comes into her own here—and sometimes in the strangest way, through silences that fairly glow with mischief. It’s the damnedest thing.
Another Sky’s the Limit veteran, Michael Lehrer, specializes in an almost spooky deadpan that often enough makes him seem alienated even from the words coming out of his mouth. Kosinski is just plain fun to watch—a human pipe cleaner. And Sudik demonstrates her formidable chops as a physical comedian, playing a horrific eight-year-old. You’ve just got to see it.