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Second City's Second Rate Second Look

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Old Wine in New Bottles

Second City

In comedy, timing is everything. Three weeks before Second City opened its 35th-anniversary retrospective revue, Viola Spolin--the mother of sketch comedy and the troupe's philosophical founder--died at the age of 88. Her passing creates a kind of closure: Spolin's book Improvisation for the Theatre inventoried now-crucial theater games, techniques that drew drama out of what was literally child's play on Chicago's streets. An observant Hull House social worker, Spolin saw in street kids' organic, self-generating skits a set of simple rules from which complex scenes could evolve.

Shaped into long-form sketches by Spolin's son Paul Sills, director Sheldon Patinkin, and others, the games were showcased by the University of Chicago's Compass Players in the late 50s, then refined at Second City on Wells Street. As played by hip adults, these children's games were still mocking and slightly subversive. Carving up sacred cows and exploiting nervous laughter for all it was worth, Second City converted social fears--of nuclear annihilation, of racial friction--into satire. For instance, in a sketch from the 1987 revue Catch 22, "Life in the 80's/Paranoid," a woman learns a consoling Second City truth--that even paranoiacs really do have enemies.

To create Old Wine in New Bottles, a compendium of works from Second City's 35 years, Patinkin and the six current Second Citizens, in consultation with cofounder Bernie Sahlins, pored over scripts, tapes, and reviews accumulated by producer emeritus Joyce Sloane. One result is the restoration of the tradition by which the comics moved the furniture around as they set up the next scene: "We now take you to..." But in a dubious move to create more audience seats, musical director Ruby Streak now sits onstage, crowding the never-capacious playing area and restricting the stage-left movement.

Significantly absent from this revue are the classic sketches many of us grew up hearing on WFMT's Midnight Special--the saga of how football came to the maddeningly intellectual University of Chicago, Oedipus' discovery that he'd been framed by fate--in indelible performances by Severn Darden, Mina Kolb, and Barbara Harris. But these fish-out-of-water sketches assumed a shared cultural background, the bottom line of successful satire; to do them again and expect them to succeed would have been like asking lightning to strike twice in the same place. Certainly the current cast understand the pitfalls of reconstruction, the loss of spontaneity and authenticity: there's a difference when the people who write it perform it.

What Old Wine in New Bottles could have done is shed light on a seemingly inexhaustible controversy: was Second City really as brilliant as we remember it? Second City is regularly lambasted for catering to increasingly suburban and tourist audiences, substituting soft-focus clowning for hard-edged political spoofs and dumbing down to audiences' increasingly witless TV-spawned improv suggestions.

The argument ain't over. Despite some near-redeeming sketches, the old wine here seems diluted, chosen more for its accessibility, resemblance to recent fare, and compatibility with the actors' strengths than as an incentive to make the future as uncompromising as the past. It's no accident that the revue abounds in easy sight gags, which rely less on cultural context, about false teeth, cigarettes, and a human bagpipe (David Razowsky dangling from Scott Allman) and in musical numbers like "Minuet," a hilarious Swingles Singers takeoff from 1965. Obvious as an All in the Family episode in its potshots at authority, "Priest Bust," from No, No Wilmette, springs a generation-gap joke that had to be old hat even in 1971: a frazzled mother (the hilarious Jackie Hoffman) harangues her recently busted hippie son; an instant later, the boy's sympathetic parish priest is similarly dressed down by his superior.

Perhaps political satire ages badly, but surely 1964 offered a less blatant target than faith crippler Reverend "Holy" Moley and his "Kill a Commie for Christ" crusade; he trots out evidence that communist-spawned frogs are eating Tampa. Maybe you had to be there then.

Other inoffensive skits target an anal-retentive bus driver who expels passengers who can't pronounce Goethe Street, Christian Scientists praying for a broken chair to heal itself, truck drivers frenetically trying to stay awake (scary stuff today), and a bittersweet time trip: ex-radicals turned ad men who wonder if their riots made a difference, a case of trying to please left and right at once.

Patinkin's deft cast seem most at home in the sporadically sharp scenes that go beyond exploiting paranoia--like the stupid urban fears trotted out in 1972's "Screaming in the Night"--to trace its causes. In "Paranoia," from the 1963 revue New York City Is Missing, three white liberals driving into the ghetto spout do-good homilies about discrimination, then change their tune when their car stalls and fear reduces them to raving Republicans. As soon as the engine turns over, they resume their condescending litany. Obvious as it sounds, at least this sketch disturbs--enough to remind us how few recent bits are so daring.

Equally enduring scenes are buoyed by the writing or acting: blarney-spouting Irishmen pine for the grungy horrors of their lousy youth, sportscasters desperately try to fill two hours after Muhammad Ali knocks out Ken Norton in 27 seconds, and an atonal art-song singer (Hoffman, sounding like a car alarm by Alban Berg) quickly empties the concert hall, then howls at her own reflection.

There aren't enough of these skits, however. Nostalgic for the wrong stuff, the creators of Old Wine in New Bottles have picked pieces that won't shame the current crop. By exorcising any threatening comparisons from their illustrious past, today's Second Citizens have made their next revue an easy sell--a bit too easy.

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