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Not Just Funny

The new, compassionate Second City

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Red Scare

Second City

From Fear to Eternity

Second City E.T.C.

Seeing a Second City show during the troupe's first 15 years was a little like joining Alice on a trip through the looking glass. Founded in December 1959 in reaction to the Eisenhower era, when a false complacency masked social divisions, the Old Town-based comedy cabaret reflected a clear-cut line between mainstream and alternative cultures. Later its comic sensibility evolved from hip drollness to rowdy rebellion. In the years of civil rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, Second City's running theme seemed to be: Things are fucked up. Let's stop pretending they aren't and try instead to figure out why they are.

In the wake of 9/11 and last fall's election, America is anything but complacent, and the looking glass has shattered. The country seems deeply divided along rigid boundaries of region, race, religion, party affiliation, class, and sexual identity. In response, Second City is marking its 45th anniversary with two revues in which satire is the starting point for a surprising goal--healing. The message now is: We all know things are fucked up, so let's find common ground and figure out how to get out of the mess we're in.

This isn't to say that Red Scare, the new main-stage production, and From Fear to Eternity, in the smaller E.T.C. space, aren't funny. They're packed with crisply timed physical comedy as well as smart, sharp dialogue. But they're not just funny. Red Scare in particular has dramatic passages as strong as anything in a "straight" play and songs as intelligent and well sung as any in a contemporary musical. And while comedy dominates--this is Second City, after all--it transcends the shock-jock cynicism director Mick Napier has sometimes employed in the past, aiming instead for a riskier kind of humor that doesn't always culminate in punch lines. In the innovative long-form structure of this bold piece of conceptual theater, a seemingly random stream of events develops into a dreamscape of a divided America. Depending on your frame of mind, the show either demands your attention or invites you to submit to its hallucinatory flow.

The sketches themselves, invented by a top-notch six-person cast under the guidance of Napier and musical director Ruby Streak, are clever, provocative, and notably lacking in facile mockery. Even when people act like assholes, they do so because they're trying in their own foolish way to forge a connection with other people in a hostile, anxiety-ridden environment. In one skit Antoine McKay and Claudia Michelle Wallace play African-American office workers enduring their white colleagues' well-meaning attempts at hip-hop language and gestures. Wallace--one of the most authoritative stage presences I've seen in Chicago--delivers one of the show's few overtly political numbers, a playful jazz salute to Barack Obama ("You're the only black with a Senate seat / You've got really big hands and really big feet"). Brian Boland portrays a smug suburbanite blithely tossing racial epithets at his neighbors, just to be friendly. Brian Gallivan plays a flip gay guy (think Jack on Will & Grace) who saves Shakespeare's Juliet from suicide by taking her shopping. Gallivan is also superb as a loser who can't even make out with his inflatable doll and as a basketball coach pep-talking his bedridden wife (Jean Villepique) through her cancer treatment. A premise like this might have been played just for laughs, however dark, in past Napier shows. Instead the actors take this stark situation seriously, avoiding bathos with a rich, deep humor.

A hallmark of the Second City style is audience participation. In one vignette McKay and Maribeth Monroe play a self-conscious interracial couple (she's white) asking fellow Starbucks customers--us--for their thoughts on mixed-race relationships. The risks and fun of scenes like this were evident the night I attended: Monroe was clearly flummoxed when she asked a middle-aged white patron how he'd react if his college-age daughter, sitting with him, brought home a black boyfriend. "I'd be very surprised," the man replied--because, the daughter explained, she's a lesbian.

From Fear to Eternity, directed by Sue Gillan with musical direction by Trey Stone, is a more traditionally structured blackout-sketch show. The theme--fears and fantasies--is summed up in Aaron Carney's inventive set, which depicts the earth and two bedrooms as seen from the heavens, perhaps by the eye of God or a spy satellite. The show opens and closes with a mother offering comfort to her daughter, frightened not by terrorism or the threat of war but by the monsters under her bed. In between we witness a married couple working out sexual fantasies in bed (the wife's scenarios, unfortunately, keep including the husband's colleague); a fitness expert browbeating the audience with Bush-esque fear tactics ("Nothing looks more like a target from an airplane than a fat guy with a hat"); a first date marred by the traumatic memories each person's casual conversation stirs in the other; and a group of Democratic strategists dreaming up ways to win back an America obsessed with "morality and war." (One solution: call all houses of worship "churches," even synagogues and mosques.) The material is witty, but the show's great strength is its cast: like their main-stage counterparts, author-actors Jennifer Bills, Frank Caeti, Matt Craig, Rebecca Drysdale, Ithamar Enriquez, and Peter Grosz combine tight timing with intuitive spontaneity.

The college students and tourists at both Second City shows were looking for a good time--cheap tickets, inexpensive drinks, good jokes--and they got it. And maybe they also got a glimpse of the next Tina Fey or Alan Arkin or Stephnie Weir or Mike Myers or Amy Sedaris or Dan Castellaneta or Bill Murray or Bonnie Hunt. Certainly the current crop of Second City actors is as strong as any the company has ever had. But these audiences also got an evening of comic theater at its best, enriched by a combination of abrasiveness and compassion.

Red Scare

When: Open run: Tue-Thu 8:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 and 11 PM, Sun 8 PM

Where: Second City, 1616 N. Wells

Price: $18-$19.50

Info: 312-337-3992 or 877-778-4707

From Fear to Eternity

When: Open run: Thu 8:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 and 11 PM, Sun 8 PM

Where: Second City E.T.C., Piper's Alley, 1608 N. Wells

Price: $18-$19.50

Info: 312-337-3992 or 877-778-4707

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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