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The conversation breaks down in Second City’s The Winner . . . of Our Discontent

A poor casting choice damages the theater’s new main-stage revue.

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The Second City is nothing if not responsive. I mean, really: Nothing. Responsiveness is the whole point of an improv-based, satirical theater. The institution has no entertainment value if its ensemble members fail to respond to one another and no relevance if it fails to respond to the world.

So it's way better than nothing to see the Second City apparently going full-out responsive after a long season of controversy in Chicago and beyond. Take the recent controversy over audience hecklers throwing around verbal abuse so intense that Second Citizen Peter Kim felt compelled to quit an E.T.C. stage revue over it. The theater responded by declaring a "zero tolerance policy" toward "homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist or prejudiced comments"—reinforced by a preshow announcement that advises anybody wanting to make such comments to go home, scream them into a pillow, and then use it to smother himself.

The latest mainstage revue, The Winner . . . of Our Discontent, is responsive too. But the results aren't always as eloquent as that announcement.

Offering a neatly progressive symmetry—three African-Americans and three whites, three women and three men—the Winner cast barrels through dozens of short and long sketches, some topical and some not so much. On the topical side: a brilliant early sight gag presents a black woman finally achieving true safety by morphing into a white man; a doctor and her pregnant patient tread lightly as they cope with new rules imposed by Trump's putative surgeon general, Dr. Oz; and a broken Hillary Clinton hosts an American Idol-style competition to pick the next POTUS.

One standout apolitical sketch consists of nothing more than a quiet conversation between a successful son and his fuckup of a mother as they sit outside his Lake Forest manse. Another goes full-bore absurd when a musician shows up to entertain a kid who's just been through an appendectomy. Floating somewhere between genres is Martin Morrow's engaging monologue delivered from an Alabama porch—supplying, among other things, a weirdly apt picture of Indiana as an overturned Greyhound bus that somehow became a state.

Morrow, Paul Jurewicz, Kelsey Kinney, Jamison Webb, and Rashawn Nadine Scott all give witty and assured performances. Things break down in a big way, though, when it comes to Shantira Jackson. Already set apart by her comparative lack of acting chops, awkward audience rapport, and idiosyncratic costuming—a bow-tie-and-suspenders combo that establishes an unchanging identity, better suited to a comedian than a sketch artist who has to transform on a regular basis—Jackson specializes in earnest, poetic solos that make her come across as the One and Only Conscience of the Show. Director Anthony LeBlanc may've hoped that Jackson's quirks would put things profitably off balance, adding yet another level of responsiveness. But the actual effect is to stop the show cold.  v

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