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History Repaints Itself

Second City E.T.C.

Second City 4.0

Second City

By Albert Williams

In Live From the Second City--1961, the deliciously funny vintage TV special screened last weekend as part of Second City's 40th-anniversary celebration, a very young Alan Arkin appears as a very old Noah. The sketch--the finale of a live performance taped for Canadian television in Second City's original space at 1842 N. Wells--shows Noah selecting which creatures to rescue from extinction: applicants for passage on the ark must demonstrate the skills they have to offer. An antic pair of chimpanzees are chosen to serve as the ship's social directors, but a lonely aardvark seems to have no service to provide. Finally Noah convinces the long-nosed beast to eat ants--a task repellent to the aardvark's palate but one he must execute if he's to be saved. As the aardvark scurries away and thunder signals the flood's imminent start, a perplexed God asks Noah to explain his reason for saving the aardvark. "I wanted him," Noah stubbornly replies. It's a breathtaking moment of humanist comedy: here's man defying God on doomsday, standing up for what he believes against the deity in whom he believes.

The opening sketch of History Repaints Itself, Second City E.T.C.'s new revue, seems to take up where the Noah vignette left off. It's the year 2004, and nations have collapsed into a futuristic nightmare society in which human beings, like Noah's animals, are forced to demonstrate their skills to the satisfaction of a council of anonymous elders. The winners must--or rather get to--kill the losers; their graphic slaughter is no less gruesome for being comically exaggerated.

What a sea change is reflected in these two sketches--and in the shows they're from. Even the most caustic moments in the leisurely, laid-back 1961 revue are mitigated by a fundamentally optimistic view of life as worth saving, while even the merriest, most lighthearted skits in History Repaints Itself and its new main-stage counterpart, Second City 4.0, are preoccupied with the violent and depraved aspects of human nature. Second City was born in 1959 out of a belief in the value (though not "sacredness") of life and a desire to celebrate independence of thought and spirit; its sometimes sweet, sometimes stinging satire was a reaction against the sanitized repressiveness of the 50s. Forty years later, a new generation of improvisational actor-writers is hoping to shock a jaded, ultrapermissive culture into laughter by creating comedy that's brutal, confrontational, and occasionally downright nihilistic. And why not? Think of the events the irreverent young upstarts on the 1961 video--Arkin, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Paul Sand, Andrew Duncan, Mina Kolb, and Eugene Troobnick, insightfully directed by Paul Sills--had yet to experience. Still to come in their lives and ours were the Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, AIDS, the "malaise" of the Carter years, the grab-all greed of the Reagan era, and the sordid spectacle of Monicagate--all disseminated over an endlessly expanding network of high-tech cable TV and cyberspace communications outlets.

Ironically, these same outlets have helped make Second City more profitable even as the world has made it more cynical. The group's original location--a rehabbed Chinese laundry--has long since been demolished in the urban-renewal orgy of the 1960s, and its current home base was transformed years ago from a cobblestoned hippie haven into a sprawling suburban-style mall. The cultish backroom cabaret theater of yore has ballooned into an expansionist media empire with operations on TV and the Internet and in the corporate world. Under the leadership of executive producer Andrew Alexander and producer Kelly Leonard, the company has also developed a multitiered training system that mints money even as it nurtures new talent--and, more important, has helped broaden Second City's range, making it reflect the diversity and honesty that are the paradoxical counterparts to our culture's cynicism.

No wonder the author-performers of History Repaints Itself seem in such a good mood: they execute the animalistic violence of the 2004 skit with a buoyant goofiness that characterizes the entire production. Under Jeff Richmond's savvy direction, the six cast members--Craig Cackowski, Martin Garcia, Susan Gillan, Jack McBrayer, David Pompeii, and Angela Shelton--practically bound off the stage. Their infectious high spirits seem to say "Just kidding!" as they portray a procession of vicious, venal, or just plain fucked-up folks. Consider the adolescent mass murderer, a la Dylan Klebold, being interrogated by cops who take sadistic pleasure in aggravating his insecurities ("Your kind makes me sick, with your big words and your calculus"); a seemingly perfect but actually dysfunctional couple (she's manic-depressive, he's gay); a pair of shoppers whose argument in a grocery checkout line erupts into a duel to the death complete with fencing foils; a Senate committee whose members toss crude racial slurs at one another as they eviscerate a hate-crimes bill; a woman who invites her eager date home to meet her pet, a murderously jealous 300-pound baboon; a team of lawyers hiring for their firm who reject a highly qualified black woman, deaf woman, and gay man in favor of a ridiculously flaky straight white guy; and an anger-management group for hostile, horny teenagers that explodes into a high school bloodbath just before the show's cheery closing song, "Please Don't Shoot Your Classmates."

Things get even darker in Second City 4.0, directed on the main stage by Mick Napier. More experimentally structured than History Repaints Itself, it offers a fast-paced, fluid series of scenes whose weird characters and sometimes ugly story lines are ingeniously cross-referenced over the two-act evening. A recurring joke concerns a dentist who molests his anesthetized female patients--one of whom, he informs her and her husband with doctorly concern, has a cancerous lump in her breast. In other bits, a deluded Radio Shack manager brags about his sex appeal, a husband plays sick jokes on his wife by mimicking the crying of their kidnapped baby, and a Jekyll-and-Hyde character murders her sexual partners; in the most offensive routine, a man sings about his infatuation with a mentally ill homeless woman.

But even at its most tasteless and alienating, Second City 4.0 shows off the agile imaginations and performance skills of its six cast members: Kevin Dorff, Ed Furman, Susan Messing, Tami Sagher, Rich Talarico, and Stephnie Weir. Messing's slyness, Furman's outrageousness (especially as the Radio Shack manager), and Weir's extraordinary facial flexibility and live-wire intensity are especially impressive. A pair of sketches about midlife crisis--three divorced men and their ex-wives separately gather to reminisce about their lost youth in songs based on audience suggestions--reveal the cast's improvisational and musical talents.

There's no sign of midlife malaise or fin de siecle fatigue in this energetic, creative revue. Still, there's nothing in Second City 4.0 that's remotely as engaging or moving as the scene in Napier's previous main-stage show, The Psychopath Not Taken, in which Weir played an adolescent baby-sitter and Dorff a middle-aged father wrestling with their mutual attraction. The psychological complexity and dramatic structure of that sketch recalled the best of Second City's early days, exemplified by two episodes in the 1961 video featuring the brilliant Barbara Harris: in one she played an eager art lover being given lessons in "spontaneity" by folksinger Alan Arkin, and in the other, a teenager being questioned by a concerned parent (Severn Darden) about her exploration of drugs and sex. The subject matter of Second City 4.0 is conscientiously outrageous, but the group's exploration of it remains shallow and mocking--sardonic for the sake of being sardonic. And while Napier's channel-surfing structure is undeniably innovative, it fails to produce a theatrically satisfying conclusion: the startling punch line that brings the evening to its abrupt climax leaves the audience laughing yet uncertain whether the show has actually ended.

Strangest of all, especially in contrast to History Repaints Itself, is the production's all-white cast. That racial homogeneity hurts the show not so much ideologically--though racial inclusiveness is a worthy goal--as theatrically: it restricts the comic perspective, especially since the actors create the script through improvisation. History Repaints Itself is also lacking in emotional depth, but its satire is strikingly more pungent due largely to its diverse cast. The fact that two members, Shelton and Pompeii, are African-American and a third, Garcia, is Hispanic allows the cast as a whole to explore ideas that would seem condescending if not outright racist if presented by an all-white cast. One of the funniest sequences in History Repaints Itself shows Pompeii, Shelton, and Garcia as nannies passing on inner-city lingo to their wealthy white charges; in another good bit, Pompeii plays a black performance poet who can't resist hitting on the women in the show's real-life audience. Similarly, the fact that Garcia is openly gay allows the show to spoof gay themes without coming across as homophobic. One episode compares American family life over three different eras. In each scenario, the mother worries whether her flitty son (Garcia) will ever marry. "He's as gay as the day is long," says the 90s dad proudly, while his 50s counterpart insists, "He's as manly as Rock Hudson."

America in the 90s is more violent and cynical than it was when Second City was founded, but it's also far less hypocritical and much more inclusive. This inclusiveness is what gives even the most mordant moments in History Repaints Itself a freshness that in its own way echoes the intelligent idealism of Second City's early days, pointing the way to the troupe's continued growth and success.

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