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Flowers for Algonquin, or Des Plaines, Trains, and Automobiles/Disgruntled Employees Picnic, or The Postman Always Shoots Twice/Take Me Out to the Balkans

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FLOWERS FOR ALGONQUIN, OR DES PLAINES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES

Second City Northwest

DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEES PICNIC, OR THE POSTMAN ALWAYS SHOOTS TWICE

Second City E.T.C.

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALKANS

Second City

It was the comic equivalent of a synchronized Rapture and Harmonic Convergence: within ten days all three Second City troupes opened new shows.

Like previous shows at Second City Northwest, Flowers for Algonquin, or Des Plaines, Trains and Automobiles, the company's 11th revue, is stronger when it's quiet. No deathless satire's at stake here. The thorniest problems in Rolling Meadows seem to be construction tie-ups on the Kennedy and pesky mall surveys; the sole political note concerns the easy outrage Clinton sparks by everything he does.

This show, staged by Norm Holly, prefers to dwell on life's private follies, but it recoups all it sacrifices in satirical breadth because the domestic fare plays sharp and true. In one familiar sketch the relationship of a young, bored suburban couple (John Thies and Tracy Thorpe, the troupe's newest members) seems to run out of steam--until he pretends to rescue her from a black man (John Hildreth) who's waiting for a bus. The scene pokes fun at both suburban urban phobia and at the romantic notion that a good relationship needs regular rescues.

Even more inspired is a splendidly built scene in which two writers for Bozo's Circus (Aaron Rhodes and Jim Zulevic) unveil their long-concealed hatred for Bozo and Cookie; Rhodes finally erupts in a surreal soliloquy detailing the tragedy of not making it to bucket number six.

If every Second City revue has an obligatory sentimental scene, this one has a gem: Hildreth plays a black orphan boy who builds a gigantic tree house in the backyard of his temporary foster home (the rear of the theater) so that he can never be moved again. Thies plays the kid's middle-aged foster father with addlepated compassion and finally unexpected daring.

Among the physical gags is a most original piece called "The Party," in which several smokers are exiled to the basement. Played in the dark except for the burning cigarettes, this scene teems with invisible surprises and ends uproariously with a visible one.

The music, by Mark Levenson, is appropriately quirky, including a fulsome ballad to back hair and a rip-roaring Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style salute to gays in the Navy. The principal improv scene, based on a genie's three choices, was sloppily executed, but the premise shows promise.

Let's hope Second City E.T.C. keeps getting its mail on time: the title of their 11th revue, Disgruntled Employees Picnic, or The Postman Always Shoots Twice, has reportedly upset the local post office. (They shouldn't worry--there's no such scene.)

Letter carriers may be the only ones not laughing. Directed by Tom Gianas, this edition has the fewest clinkers and the freshest comic takes to hit Wells Street in several seasons. With few exceptions the sketches don't betray their strong premises by resorting to Saturday Night Live silliness, forced complications, or sloppy endings. Even the scene changes are funny.

The sometimes-daring targets include right-to-lifers who kill for the unborn, old people who offend the young with their lack of youth, U.S. delegates so ignorant about Bosnia that UN translators resort to baby talk, Denny's restaurants (where the chef has a big pointed hat), vacuous performers in Gap ads who pretend to dance away the world's calamities, and United Airlines for two offenses--its vandalism of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and its war against unsvelte stewardesses.

However hardened your views, the E.T.C. squad, ever apt to exploit the odd angle, can fool you into laughing. Even sharper than the small slams are the grand ones. In a spoof of Barney & Friends Delbert the Dung Beetle and his friend Timmy the Tapeworm regale us with songs about white-trash neighbors and their brain-dead dogs, and a peppy ballad tells kids how to say no to priests who want to check their bodies for sin. There's a cunning contrast between the perky performances and the grungy real-life content.

The best-shaped sketches depict incongruous matings. Scott Adsit and Jenna Jolovitz lay it on thick as a lovestruck janitor and secretary who gush romance-novel nonsense ("I will not hurt you. My love has padded walls"). In "A Clinic" Adsit plays a creep eager to seduce women about to have abortions who's turned on by watching them at the local clinic; Jackie Hoffman seethes with disgust at his come-on.

Other gems include a bit about a depressed knife thrower (Ian Gomez) whose friends sacrifice themselves to restore his confidence, a takeoff on Disney's animatronic Hall of Presidents, a neatly balanced sketch on gays in the military, and a screamfest in which the right-wing jury for the Scopes "monkey" trial prove the theory of evolution with a sudden atavism.

Even the improv games seem fresh. In "Spike Lee" the audience picks the roles and then the cast members insult one another in the ethnic-bashing style of Do the Right Thing. In a wry segment they play pompous or flaky U.S. senators perorating on a topic chosen by the audience. (Ours was cable TV, and the regional variations on that bland topic were amazing.)

The sole disappointment is an overlong scene in which Johnny Appleseed exploits an apprentice, who then pulls out a gun to even the odds--a cheap resolution. But even here the details--like the vengeful acolyte substituting crabapple seeds--are delicious. So is the cast, which also includes Scott Allman and Jimmy Doyle.

The title of the main-stage show, Take Me Out to the Balkans, is hardly hysterical, but then neither is the revue. Aggressively unoriginal, Ron West's concoction is at times a catalog of second-class Second City--generic sight gags aping satire, predictable twists, fitfully inspired improv segments, and deja vu targets (liberal guilt, the American lust for litigation). The cast also take an unseemly delight in dumbing down their comedy (well appreciated by the screaming opening-night crowd).

One bit tells all: a silly pop-folk takeoff called "The Obvious Song," a train of mind-numbing tautologies. Once again, the Second City members go easy on themselves and even easier on their audience.

The sharp stuff makes you impatient with the rest. In a wacky, surreal sketch Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris (whose rubber face can launch a thousand laughs) are hilarious as passive-aggressive parents who force their son (Paul Dinello) to say which of them he'd save from drowning if he could only save one. He reacts by going temporarily insane, apparently the correct answer.

A clever throwback to Second City's cerebral days, "Magritte" depicts two pedants at the Art Institute engaged in a solemn "interp-off," coughing up arcane explanations of surreal canvases. But just in case we didn't get the joke, a guide explains it's about "academics acting like asses."

Some bits push familiarity in intriguing directions. A gun-store sketch on how readily Americans find answers in bullets is saved by its pungent details. In "Forum" the leader of a self-improvement seminar (David Razowsky) skewers his clients' expectations until he finally frees them--of himself. Fran Adams and Steven Carell play lovers on Christmas morning whose vastly disproportionate gifts turn "Gift of the Magi" on its head; unfortunately, it ends on a smarmy, materialistic message. All but appropriating Arthur Miller's Biff and Happy, "Peak Earning Potential" depicts suburban brothers (warmly played by Dinello and Colbert) who pretend they're basketball superstars, but drop all fantasies when the game's over and start arguing about their different career choices.

Like winos seizing a bottle, the Second Citizens latch on to physical gags. Yet sometimes the gambit is successful. In the original "Layers" Razowsky and Sedaris are a couple on a date who slowly take off a series of T-shirts, each contradicting the other's taste; their ardor cools fast until their T-shirts finally connect.

The audience also ate up a Win, Lose or Draw bit in which men and women draw pictures of things their partner is to guess; the women instantly guess what it is, and the men don't. The tantrums build well, and the piece even sheds light on the different ways men and women communicate. But the comics would rather repeat the joke than turn it inside out.

As for politics (an endangered species at Second City), all we get are a numb sketch about Secret Service agents looking for Socks, an overlong ballad about Janet Reno's toughness, and a Marx Brothers-style patter song, the show's finale, that tries to compress the history of the Balkans into three stanzas. What's the damn point?

Still, the stage, now painted in fluffy clouds against a bright blue backdrop, has never looked more cheerful.

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