Over the past few years Second City has lived in my mind as a stale representation of the comedy world. While I’ll never deny the impact the theater/training ground had on some of my favorite talents, like Bill Murray and Chris Farley and the queen herself, Miss Tina Fey, the shows themselves haven’t broken free of the same sort of Murray-Farley-Fey formula. Yes, Second City revues will always be entertaining; I could watch comics do their own version of Chris Farley’s Matt Foley sketch over and over again and still laugh. But what the comedy club’s needed for years is something entirely different to prove it’s on the pulse—and that that pulse is going strong. The latest from the E.T.C. ensemble, A Red Line Runs Through It, is just that show.
It’s important to note that I’m 25 years old, and love Hamilton, Netflix, shopping at Trader Joe’s, and dominating at pub trivia, all topics that featured heavily in this sketch show. While I’m sure that senior theater critic Tony Adler (who shared my view of Second City as early as 1990) or any other of our older reviewers would recognize the merit and talent these six relative newcomers bring to the stage, I doubt they’d take the same delight in a nostalgic reference to a late-90s song that asks the world to “back dat azz up” (though you never know).
From the second the lights go up, the cast’s immediate standouts are Lisa Beasley and Aasia Lashay Bullock. In one opening sketch the pair of black women play neighbors who politely hold their tongues while their white maleman (er, mailman) chuckles and tells the ladies to “get in formation.” They courteously smile, wait for him to leave, then lose their goddamn minds over his appropriation of Beyonce; they calm down again when a white soccer mom jogs by with her baby (a baby who is, if you ask Beasley and Bullock after the fact, extremely ugly). It becomes instantly clear that this show wasn’t going to be yet another featuring an overweight comedian falling onto tables overseen by a slim, attractive white woman and a dude.
Beasley shines again as Barack Obama in a Hamilton-esque parody about the president’s time in office. Another politically focused musical number highlights the talents of the entire cast, who expertly croon laughable lyrics (“Rahm-a-ling-a-ding-dong” runs the doo-wop-style refrain) along with cutting lines about police brutality and the murder of unarmed black teens.
A thread of social consciousness runs throughout the show. Sure, some jokes are a just plain funny, like Beasley struggling through an exercise video while the spunky Julie Marchiano replies with automated messages of encouragement. (“I’m dying!” Beasley cries. “Way to go!” answers Marchiano.) And there is, inevitably, an instance of a straight man in drag. But even that scene shows progress—far from simply mocking a man in a dress, the sketch revolves around gender fluidity, and said man in drag is played by the production’s sole white male.
It’s encouraging to see that the next generation of sketch comedians is looking more like the Beasleys and Bullocks and Marchianos. We need more performers who bring a fresh perspective—not to mention a good old-fashioned Notorious RBG hip-hop breakdown. v