The opening sequence of the Second City's new main-stage revue had me worried. First there's an amusing but indeterminate sketch introducing us to six people riding a Greyhound bus, apparently into the twilight zone. That's followed by movie-style credits projected on the walls of the stage. It looked to me like a setup for a theme—maybe something where the riders pop up at telling moments throughout the evening, singing about how we're all on this Bus of Blah-blah-blah together. After years of watching successive companies do that sort of stuff, I've begun to think that themes are suspect when it comes to Second City shows. They almost inevitably force smart, talented people to make greeting-card generalizations about Human Nature and Modern Life. Worse, they often incite them to acts of choreography.
Well, thank god I was wrong. Neither the bus of the damned nor its occupants reappear over the course of Panic on Cloud 9. And if any other thematic contrivances were attempted, I missed them. The Greyhound bit was followed instead by 20 mostly topical, frequently funny, entirely unconnected sketches on subjects ranging from Russian bachelorettes to the etiquette of Ebola.
With one candidate for classic status thrown in.
That candidate, called "Camp Fire," involves main-stage newcomer Paul Jurewicz and veteran John Hartman as a coupla cowpokes sittin' around the title heat source at night, in the middle o' nowhere. Taking their time between utterances, keeping a careful watch out for motion in the stillness (straight-backed, wide-eyed Hartman looking not unlike an alarmed prairie dog), they allow as how it's a-clear tonight, but there'll be "weather" in the mornin' . . . that the coyotes must be sleepin' . . . and they'll need to make an early start come dawn. Given the slow rhythm of their exchange, you're primed for the outburst. You think Brokeback Mountain. Yet the release, when it comes, is subtler than that. Though it validates conventional assumptions about these two brooding galoots on one level, it undermines them on another. The guys have their fantasies, sure enough, and one of them is unexpected in what might be called the usual way. But the others come as truly delightful surprises.
The bit is a classic only in part because it's hilarious. It also manages to occupy a spot both in and out of time: current in its references, archetypal in its context, expansive in its creativity and compassion.
Nothing else in Panic on Cloud 9 comes close—but neither, I'd bet, does the material in 99 percent of all the revues you'll see in your lifetime. Most of the rest of the show is either very funny or—like the piece in which a wife visits her comatose husband at the hospital—effectively bittersweet.
The above-mentioned Russian bachelorettes sketch constitutes a low-class high point. Emily Walker plays a post-Soviet bride-to-be getting launched into marital misery with the help of her two pals (Chelsea Devantez and Christine Tawfik), who throw her their best imitation of an American-style party, featuring buckets of vodka and an LED-encrusted tiara. Their girl talk is raunch-encrusted: if you want to know how a vagina resembles Ukraine in Putin-era Russia, you'll find out here. (Though, come to think of it, you can probably figure that one out for yourself.)
Interestingly, pretty much all the raunch in this show originates with the three female ensemble members. Besides the Russian interlude, there's a scene between Walker and Devantez as advertising creatives brainstorming campaigns for such clients as Lululemon ("Dress for the body you want, not the body you have") and Chanel. Each product releases hidden currents of rage in the two women, culminating in an epic rant triggered by Playtex tampons. Walker and Devantez demonstrate an easy rapport, both here and whenever they interact, thanks to a long history of collaboration that includes the last main-stage production, Depraved New World. A new recruit filling the position left by Tawny Newsome, Tawfik is clearly at a disadvantage. She has trouble defining herself, both in relation to the other women and to the company.
Newbie Daniel Strauss, on the other hand, finds a solid spot for himself in various average-guy roles: a dad, another dad, a husband, a school principal. Oh, and a Roomba vacuum robot. But he really distinguishes himself as an easygoing barber of unclear ethnic origin, teasing conversation out of a customer pulled from the audience.
Overall, however, Panic belongs to Hartman. Short and thin, with a deadpan reminiscent of a silent-movie comedian, he continues to make the case for his physical-comedy genius. Hartman's body language helps everything he's in succeed, from the cowpoke skit to an oddly touching bit centered on a deaf bully. An otherwise pointless passage about incompetent secret service agents is saved entirely by his outlandish intervention. He's extraordinary.