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On Stage: Susan Messing's distaff laugh attack

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Director Susan Messing wants to go back 30 years to a time when comediennes walked around the kitchen barefoot and pregnant--they liked it, and we laughed at it. How will she launch her nefarious plan to stick it to Gloria Steinem?

The 36-year-old Northwestern alum, who most recently appeared in Second City's main-stage revues The Psychopath Not Taken and Second City 4.0, plunked herself down in front of the company's archives of scripts, photographs, videotapes, audiotapes, and other memorabilia nestled in bulging yet surprisingly well-organized storage boxes in the closet of its cramped administrative offices. She pored over the material in a few weeks, poking and picking through pile after pile until she uncovered the ripest and raunchiest female-oriented material she could lay her hands on--skits she says embody Second City's brand of insolent, absurdist humor. She's incorporated them into Girls' Night Out, a first-of-its-kind all-female production of some of the best women-centered sketches from Second City's 40-year history.

Messing says a classic sketch like "Death," in which the title character comes home to the wife after a hard day's work, only to find that work has followed him home, had them rolling in the aisles decades ago and is certainly worth resurrecting. Today the tone is much more ribald. Messing found that contemporary sketches, like "1-900," in which a phone-sex line sets the stage for kinky improvisation, tend to get to the point more quickly (in a four- or five-page script now, she says, instead of the old ten to fifteen pages). They attack their subjects with less subtlety and incorporate more explicitly sexual references and more cross-gendered casting than those of a generation ago. Just in case no one's laughing at a time-worn sketch from the 60s--in which the punch line is a woman hosting a talk-radio show--Messing's added plenty of new material to keep things fresh.

Interestingly some of the best material dates from the 70s, when women like Gilda Radner and Shelley Long made their mark and the rise of feminism provided plenty of grist for the company's mill.

Messing, a cofounder of the Annoyance Theatre (she coadapted and directed its hit production What Every Girl Should Know...An Ode to Judy Blume), is familiar with comedy that's aimed at women but isn't exclusionary. "I just want our show to be funny, so that a man sitting in the audience won't think it's a Jenny Jones pajama party," she says. "I'd rather shoot myself. If it comes to that, I will shoot myself."

She can put away the pistol. Over the years Second City has pushed boundaries some audiences would rather not, tackling such topics as homosexuality and race. "People who get offended, bless their hearts," says Messing. "Everyone has their line to cross. I don't have a line."

It's that attitude that Messing says has lit a flame under Second City and women's comedy from the early days of liberation to the backlash against "feminazis." "When Second City takes a chance, everything happens," she says. "They're giving us this opportunity because they know we're not going to ruin comedy for women. I call this 'affirmative action for the bitches.'"

Girls' Night Out runs through August 13 at Theater on the Lake, Fullerton and Lake Shore Drive. Show times are 8 PM Thursday through Saturday, 3 PM Sunday. Tickets are $10. For more information call 312-742-7994.

--Erik Piepenburg

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

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