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The Other Chicago Machine

The Second City can't turn out a dull revue—even when it seems to be trying.

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Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies Second City

Is it even possible for a Second City main-stage show to be unfunny at this point? Or has the science of revue development advanced so far—hand in hand with Second City's farm system, which guarantees a steady flow of talented, well-trained performers—that any given production is pretty much a can't-miss affair?

Based on the evidence of this 98th main-stage revue, Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies, I'd say the answer to the first question may be no, because the answer to the second is almost certainly yes.

Spoiler Alert isn't one of those holy-shit epoch-making Second City shows everybody hopes for. It's modest, amiable, and resolutely conventional at heart. Even, perhaps in unconscious homage to the company's 50th anniversary, a little retro. The sketches—22 of them, which in itself is about average—hit all the familiar tropes, topics, formats, and tonalities. A teenager has to deal with embarrassing parents. A groom gets cold feet just before the wedding ceremony. There's one requisite bit in which two souls who seem to have nothing in common discover a warm rapport, and another about a sweet old lady whose solution to a squirrel infestation is amusingly out of character. Funny songs get sung, a couple gags get turned into motifs through repetition, the audience participates at the prescribed moments, and the quota of Chicago references is met. Standard stuff.

But there's no relaxing into deja vu here. Director Matt Hovde tries hard to fend it off with all kinds of ostentatious gestures. Flourishes of aggressively loud technoesque music divide the sketches, and Amy Jackson's strange non sequitur of a backdrop—all shiny surfaces and hard edges—creates the sense that Spoiler Alert is unfolding inside a gumball machine designed by Helmut Jahn.

The 20th-century-take-on-21st-century-style conceit is further reinforced by a disembodied female voice—flight-attendant friendly, robotically impersonal—that pipes up now and then to make announcements and, ultimately, state morals. At the start of the show the voice directs our attention to a big red button that sits onstage atop a Plexiglas pedestal and has to be pressed before the evening can proceed. Once some brave audience member has performed this task, the ensemble deploys to create a kind of assembly line / daisy chain that mutates in various ways but doesn't break. The message of this introductory vignette is that we're all connected—which is lovely but entirely irrelevant to most of what follows.

And despite all these trappings, what follows is funny. The reason? I think it's got to be the Second City machine. Culled from who knows how big a horde of improvisers, the six members of this particular troupe have been turned by that machine into their own finely tuned machine that generates charm and wit along with laughs.

Take that cold-feet-before-the-wedding sketch, for instance. As conceptually trite as a sketch can be, it nevertheless contains a wonderful nugget: the father of the groom explaining to his terrified kid that one of the great benefits of marriage for a man is that he gets the use of a whole other brain, one that will keep all his appointments and errands and relatives straight for him. This, of course, is the guilty secret no husband dares admit even to himself, and it turns the whole piece brilliant—which is saying quite a bit considering the extraordinarily stupid ending.

Another example: Sam Richardson, whose strategy, as the only black member of the troupe, is to deconstruct black stereotypes by embodying them. Richardson performs a couple solos as Uncle Charles, a jovial, jobless, Cheetos-scarfing fool whose utter cluelessness doesn't prevent him from dispensing hilariously dangerous advice to his troubled teenage nephew. Tim Robinson, meanwhile, excels in an audience participation segment in which he gathers a cast from the front seats and coaches his ersatz ensemble through a ridiculous, playwright's-wish-fulfilling script he's devised. Robinson's impish engagement with his victims is delightful.

A recent New Yorker profile on Second City veteran Steve Carell quotes a fellow vet, movie director Adam McKay, as saying that Carell "understands how to push his old-fashioned skills so they seem edgy." Hovde seems to be taking a similar tack by piling the gimmicks on Spoiler Alert. In the end, though, it's the skills that save him from himself and render yet another Second City revue foolproof.   

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